The March Against Antisemitism Is a Far-Right Dream

Why else does Tommy Robinson want in?

by Rivkah Brown

30 November 2023

a man with short brown hair and a fade looks pained as he's arrested by police in yellow hi vis
Tommy Robinson is arrested at the march against antisemitism, November 2023. Matthew Chattle/Reuters

On Sunday, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people marched through central London, though exactly why wasn’t clear. The march organisers made no mention of Israel in the event description – and yet the crowd was awash with Israeli flags. They had been clear that this was a march against antisemitism – and yet in attendance was Britain’s most notorious antisemite.

The Campaign of Antisemitism (CAA) had boasted that its gathering – which it intends to repeat this Sunday – was the largest of its kind since the Battle of Cable Street, when thousands blocked the British Union of Fascists’ march through London’s east end, at the time home to a sizable Jewish population. What the CAA failed to mention was that this time, Tommy Robinson was on their side. Or at least he would have been, were it not for the squad of cops that rushed past the Royal Courts of Justice to arrest the former English Defence League (EDL) leader shortly after the march began for flouting an order excluding him from the area. As the cops moved in, the crowd was torn: some booed Robinson as he was led away; others chanted “Ohhhh, Tommy Tommy” and “Shame on you” at the arresting officers.

Much like the Palestine demonstrations of recent weeks, the march against antisemitism had a family feel, albeit a whiter and more middle-class one. Protesters in Barbour jackets pushed expensive prams and pulled on nervous labradoodles. Kids sitting on their parents’ shoulders sang the Israeli national anthem, waving homemade placards so inoffensive as to border on meaningless: “Make Chicken Soup, Not War”, “More Hummus, Less Hate”, “We Are All Different and It’s Beautiful”. The marchers came to hear speeches from religious leaders like chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and minor celebrities like television personality Rachel Riley and actor Eddie Marsan, flanked by former prime minister Boris Johnson.

Amid this sea of polite white faces, the appearance of a red-faced fascist might have seemed out of place. In fact, he was right at home.

The CAA’s anti-antisemitism march followed a wave of similar events held in Europe and America since 7 October, many of which have attracted the far right. In Paris, 100,000 people took to the streets in mid-November to protest a reported rise in antisemitic incidents in the country. Joining them was National Front leader Marine Le Pen, daughter of a convicted Holocaust denier. In Washington DC, speakers included Christian Zionist pastor John Hagee, a man who believes that God “sent Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land”.

Organisers have responded to the far right’s overtures with varying degrees of dismay: in Washington, Hagee was actively invited to join; in Paris, Le Pen’s presence was permitted (she is, after all, an elected member of France’s national assembly) but counter-protested. In London, organisers vociferously strained to distance themselves from Robinson and his supporters.

“Drunken far-right thugs … are not allies of the Jewish community and are not welcome at our solidarity march,” the CAA told the Guardian before the march (they told the Met much the same, hence Robinson’s banning order). “I don’t want his fake support, I detest it,” wrote the Sun’s political correspondent Noa Hoffman in a full-page diatribe for the paper, adding on X that Robinson should “fuck off”. Marsan used his speech at the rally to tell “your lot” – the fascists, presumably, not the other marchers – to do something similar. And for the most part they did: Robinson appears to have been the only far-right figure in attendance on Sunday.

The far-right’s pathetic showing, coupled with Robinson’s swift arrest, appeared to have drawn a line under the issue – the march and its organisers were definitively dissociated from Robinson and his “thugs”. The question it allowed them to swerve was why the far right had wanted to be there in the first place.

In the days leading up to the event, Robinson rallied his supporters on Twitter/X: “Everyone should attend this and let British Jews know they are not alone.” This magnanimity might have seemed surprising from a man who just last year wrote that “Jews (generally speaking, at least the white European Jews) have an average IQ of 110, so inevitably … will rise to the top of corporations”. It’s less surprising when you understand that for the far right – looking for somewhere to put all the Jews they don’t want, to whitewash their racism and to beta-test hyper-militarised ethno-supremacy – support for Israel is an article of faith.

Not only has the Jewish mainstream known this for decades, it has encouraged it. Jewish leaders – most notably Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as “representative” diaspora communal organisations such as the UK’s Board of Deputies or the Federation of Jewish Communities in Spain – have shown alarming willingness to brook or even embrace the far right in exchange for support for Israel. Over time, this strategic nose-holding has developed into ideological confluence, with increasingly extreme individuals being permitted not only to do dealings with but to infiltrate Jewish institutions.

Take the Jewish Chronicle (JC), whose editorship in the past three decades has transferred from the low-profile but widely respected centre-right figure Ned Temko to bland neo-conservative Stephen Pollard and now Jake Wallis Simons, a man who recently tweeted that “much of Muslim culture is in the grip of a death cult”, and who has completed the JC’s transformation from a respectable, small-c conservative communal paper of record to a salivating tabloid. Or indeed the way in which the fight against antisemitism has shifted from smaller community groups to national campaigning organisations such as the CAA, a nominal charity which is bankrolled by the Palestinian land-grabbing Jewish National Fund, and led the charge against Corbyn (prompting its investigation by the Charity Commission).

Often, these organisations maintain a rhetorical duality: outwardly uncontroversial in order not to deter those with a distaste for political extremes, while quietly sounding far-right dog whistles. While the placards the CAA handed out to marchers focused on antisemitism or indeterminate “hate” (“Act Against Hate Before It’s Too Late”, “United Kingdom United Against Antisemitism”, “Zero Tolerance for Antisemites”), the group’s online description of the event took a more strident tone, railing against the “mass criminality”, “Hamas-style headbands”, “calls for jihad” and “Islamist flags” that were overrunning the capital “week after week”, implicitly referencing the weekly pro-Palestine marches. Not incidentally, the CAA’s preoccupation with radical Islam closely echoed Le Pen, who had insisted that the Paris march should also protest “Islamic fundamentalism”.

This is not to say that everyone who attended the march on Sunday was a far-right ideologue, rather that their political sympathies – including their commitment to an ethnostate that is currently committing genocide – make them ripe for the picking. The marchers Novara Media spoke to were motivated not by hate but by fear. “I was born in London, and for the first time I feel worried about expressing my Jewish identity,” said Sophie, a mother of five whose grandparents were forced to flee Algeria. “I can feel a tension towards Jews. There’s a blood libel going on. There’s an ingrained sense of fear.” Jennie from Barnet, north London, told Novara Media that a swastika had been drawn on the wall of a toilet in her children’s school. She no longer allowed them out of the house wearing anything that might suggest they were Jewish.

It’s not hard to see how with gentle encouragement this fear can be tipped uneasily into apparent hyperbole or callousness. “I walked into a pro-Palestinian march and heard shouting ‘Zionists and Jews should be killed,’ said Jennie. While her report may be true, Novara Media reporters have attended every weekly London march against Palestine and not heard any chants resembling ‘Zionists and Jews should be killed’; I imagine it’s likelier sn interpretation of a pro-Palestine chant such as ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ than a word-for-word paraphrase). Antisemitism, said Sophie, is worse than Islamophobia, being an older hatred. None of the marchers who spoke to Novara Media made even a passing mention of the 15,000 Palestinians Israel has killed since 7 October. Perhaps because week after week, the communal newspapers they buy out of habit – and which I’m sure have no more avid a reader than Tommy Robinson – have drip-fed them stories about evil brown people. In the end, the tens of thousands of people who marched against racism were fuelling it – whether they intended to or not.

Additional reporting by Novara Media reporters.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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