The following piece was originally published in Haaretz on 5 November 2017.
Unlike previous anti-Israel rallies that drew thousands during wars in Gaza and Lebanon, Saturday’s event about a 100-year-old promise failed to galvanize protesters.
LONDON – At the start of Saturday’s march protesting the Balfour Declaration, one of the organizers asked from the stage, “Please, no one fly the Hezbollah flag. We have promised the police that no one will fly a Hezbollah flag.” It was a strangely apt beginning to a protest that was surprisingly lacking in the passion of previous, bigger anti-Israeli demonstrations in the British capital.
The rally and protest was the last major event in a week of dozens of events, organized by many groups on all sides, marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
But while all the pro-Palestinian organizations from around England had been talking the rally up and planning it for months, it was hard to ignore the disappointment of many involved that only a few thousand people attended. In corners of Grosvenor Square, opposite the U.S. Embassy, where the march began, there were piles of signs that had been prepared but remained unused.
The organizers boasted afterward that 15,000 had taken part, but it was clear the actual number was much lower, probably no more than a third of that.
Over the last decade and a half, during Israeli operations in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, tens of thousands had assembled for angry rallies in central London. But then, large numbers of young Muslim protesters – inflamed by social media and television footage of the carnage – had swelled their ranks. An event that took place 100 years ago clearly doesn’t excite the same passion.
This time, the majority of protesters were relatively elderly white Britons, members of far-left groups and veteran protesters.
The wide range of Marxist and Socialist splinter groups, trade unions and “anti-war” movements, whose names and logos were in evidence on signs and banners, belied the ideological roots of many of the marchers. They were bolstered by a group of Muslim women in headscarves, crying slogans at the head of the column; tiny clusters of gray-haired Jewish protesters marching under banners of the Jewish Global Anti-Zionist Network, Jews for Justice in Palestine and the Jewish Socialist Group. The Jewish contingent was completed by the same six members of the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta sect who are permanent fixtures at every anti-Israel demonstration in London.
Many of the marchers were also trying to draw attention to a variety of other causes: the condition of social housing in Britain; nuclear disarmament; workers rights; and the global struggle against capitalism. Balfour and Palestine were mentioned only in the back pages of the array of “revolutionary” newspapers on sale. One of the vendors, who complained he had yet to sell a single copy, was flying the Palestinian and Cuban flags together, and seemed much more knowledgeable about Marxist-Leninist communism than the Palestinian cause.
Passions were so low that even when a group of pro-Israel protesters blocked the march for a few minutes on Oxford Street, the marchers were happy to wait while police asked them to move, and only some shouted “Zionist pigs!” before being hushed by others.
For a few minutes, the “Free Palestine” and “Israel is a terror state” chants mingled with “Jerusalem of Gold,” which was being played on a saxophone by one of the pro-Israel group. The march caused barely a stir on the thoroughfare thronged with weekend shoppers.
None of the protesters would admit that they lacked anything in passion and anger over Balfour and Britain’s historic perfidy, but it was still a decidedly low-tempo affair.
By the time the march reached its final destination outside the Houses of Parliament, many had already dispersed. The highlight was supposed to be a recorded greeting from U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, himself a longtime veteran of many such protests. But the sound wasn’t working and by the time it was finally sorted, only a few hundred were left in Parliament Square to hear him.