The usual morass of tourists milling around Downing Street were treated to a rare sight on Saturday afternoon: a couple of dozen neo-Nazis holding nationalist flags, massively outnumbered by several hundred counter protesters, with the two groups divided by crash barriers and an enormous crowd of extremely polite police officers.
This was the summation of an affair which has preoccupied and distressed British Jews in recent months. Initially, a handful of extreme-right activists had planned to rally in the Jewish suburb of Golders Green to protest the “Jewishification” of London. After much campaigning by communal groups and dozens of meetings with the Metropolitan Police, the original rally was banned and the neo-Nazis were forced to move to a site in Westminster, just down the road from the mother of all parliaments.
At 1 P.M. precisely, the mostly male and middle-aged neo-Nazis took up their positions, hoisting flags belonging to far-right British groups and Polish fascists as well as ones adorned with the red dragon of the Wessex Wyvern, an ancient Saxon symbol. There was a Palestinian flag and a Confederate flag, just to cover all corners. The shouting began.
“Disgusting!” said a passerby.
Anti-Jewish demonstrators (AFP).
Through a megaphone, one of the neo-Nazis gave a speech, which was hard to decipher through the cat-calls. There was some mention, however, of the Magna Carta and human rights, as well as of the Shomrim, a Jewish neighborhood watch-style group operating in parts of the capital.
“Boring, boring,” came the chants in response.
One man made his way as close as he could to the neo-Nazi demo to hold up a piece of card on which he had written, “You are wrong.”
Police in fluorescent yellow vests patiently tried to keep the crowds of gaping tourists, veteran anti-fascist activists and random protesters from clogging up the pavement.
Anti-fascist demonstrators (AFP).
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“I think the neo-Nazis have a right to protest but it was the correct thing to do to move them away from Golders Green," said Esther, a 27-year-old from North London.
“They’re just a bunch of idiots. I almost feel the fact that people turned up [to counter-protest] validates them,” added her friend Eli, 25. He said he was also rather conflicted about the contingent of counter-protesters waving Israeli flags. “We have nothing to do with Israel, I’ve never been there. This isn’t about Israel or Palestine, we are Jews from London, not anywhere else.”
Jewish community divided
Notable by their absence was the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, an activist group which had implausibly claimed single-handed credit for convincing police to move the neo-Nazi rally out of Golders Green in return for the cancellation of their counter-protest.
In fact, part of the reason the police decided that the Golders Green demo would have been a public order risk was because of the fractured nature of the counter-protests, with internecine conflict raging as to whether the event was in fact about anti-Zionism, Islamist terror and the boycott movement.
Had it gone ahead in Golders Green, communal officials predicted a spate of arrests of Jewish protesters, and not necessarily for attacking the neo-Nazis. “It would have been a nightmare,” as one put it.
Placards are held up at a counter-demonstration to the anti-Jewish rally (AP).
As it was, the CAA’s only presence at the demonstration was in the form of one of their placards saved from a previous demonstration by Barry, a messianic Jew, who had come with his wife Eileen to show support. They also unfurled a home-made banner featuring a sparkly gold menorah and gold-embroidered “chai” signs, in honor of Jesus the messiah.
All in all, the counter-demonstration was a rather wonderful example of British multiculturalism and eccentricity.
Weaving through the crowd was one chap with bloodshot eyes and a Star of David tattooed on the side of his face, wrapped in a filthy Israeli flag. The idea for his tattoo had come to him in a dream, he told me.
Elsewhere, a contingent from the radical activist group Jewdas had decided to adopt humor as their weapon, with one activist holding a mini-speaker blaring out "Springtime for Hitler" from the Mel Brooks classic "The Producers" in the direction of the neo-Nazi demo.
Another brandished a placard noting the benefits of “Jewification” including weekends, aspirin, and “pickled stuff."
Nearby, a man in a wheelchair chatted earnestly to his companion. “You know Bin Laden was CIA,” I overheard him say.
'More unity than division'
Amidst the crowd was Jerry Gable, a veteran anti-fascist campaigner of more than 50 years standing. He said that despite the counter-protests’ diversity their interaction had been good-natured . “I’m very pleased. There’s been more unity than division, apart from one or two idiots.”
A woman with the word 'Jew' inked on her forehead at the anti-fascist demonstration (AFP).
“Whatever disagreements we have we have to stand up against anti-Semitism,” agreed protester Sarah Cox from Unite Against Fascism, a far-left group vociferously critical of Israel.
“I’m proud to be Jewish!” declared Yvette, who had the word Jew daubed on her forehead in smudged blue paint. “We are Jews and this is our flag,” she continued, pointing to the billowing Israeli flag she was wearing as a cloak and waving a Unite Against Fascism placard, perhaps unaware that their view of Zionism might be different from hers. She was among a group of five people who had travelled from the northern city of Manchester to join the counter-demonstration.
“We are against any discrimination,” declared her friend Eva, before insisting that the neo-Nazis were also holding Hamas and ISIS flags and claiming that some of them were, in fact, Muslims.
Anti-Jewish demonstrators leave after the rally (AFP).
At 2 P.M., on the dot, a fresh influx of police officers cleared the way for the neo-Nazis to exit their cordon and escorted them to the tube station. There were no arrests.
There is a small possibility that this might herald the start of a series of neo-Nazi protests, with the same group declaring their intent to rally in another Jewish neighborhood every couple of months before being politely and firmly directed to a small cordoned off area in Whitehall.
But I don’t think we have anything to worry about.