OPINION - Britain is no liberal democracy if it bans the march for Palestine on Armistice Day

Protesters in Trafalgar Square, central London, during a pro-Palestine march (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Protesters in Trafalgar Square, central London, during a pro-Palestine march (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Here is the difference: in March 2019, as peaceful protesters in Gaza took to the streets to demonstrate against deteriorating economic conditions, Hamas responded with vicious beatings, arbitrary arrests and torture. This is how the Islamist regime routinely deals with dissidence.

Now look at Israel. As truly corrosive a leader as Benjamin Netanyahu has been, the Jewish state remains a democracy. And one of the reasons that we can be sure of this is that, for seven months earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens protested against his dreadful judicial reforms.

In March, an unprecedented wave of strikes forced Netanyahu to pause these measures. In Tel Aviv, women have marched wearing the distinctive red and white uniforms of the handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

This contrast should be a lesson to this country as London prepares for Armistice Day on November 11 — and the planned demonstration on the same day in central London by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and other groups. For the fifth weekend in a row, the capital is set to resound with chants deploring Israel’s response to the atrocities of October 7.

One of the few certainties of a pluralist society is that you will be offended, routinely so in all probability

“To plan protests on Armistice Day is provocative and disrespectful,” said the Prime Minister in a statement last Friday, “and there is a clear and present risk that the Cenotaph and other war memorials could be desecrated, something that would be an affront to the British public and the values we stand for”.

Never one to miss an opportunity to raise the political temperature, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, has denounced the protests as “hate marches”. Yesterday, the Met urged campaigners “to urgently reconsider” their plans for protests this weekend (at present there are no demonstrations set to be held on Remembrance Sunday, though that could easily change).

To be clear: I have been appalled by much of what has been displayed and chanted at the rallies. The slogan “from the river to the sea” is, axiomatically, a call for the annihilation of Israel. The images on placards of the Star of David being put in a bin are extraordinarily offensive.

Meanwhile, the cries of “jihad!” by Hizb-ut-Tahrir fundamentalists are plainly a glorification of terrorism: if such chants are not unlawful, they should be, and the Met and the Government need to resolve their differences on this question as a matter of urgency.

The police must also be tough on any acts of intimidation or of protest that incite racial violence or hatred — remembering, as so many so often forget, that Jews are an ethnic group. Anti-Semitism is a vile racism like any other and should not be tolerated.

Yet — precisely because of my reservations, not in spite of them — I believe that these marches must be permitted, even on Armistice Day. The test of the right to peaceful freedom of assembly is not whether the gatherings of which you approve go ahead, but whether those that you dislike proceed, too.

As it happens, the United Kingdom, as the home of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, is the most expert nation in the world at organising routes and logistics to minimise tensions. Founded in 1998 to prevent sectarian clashes between Unionist and Nationalist marches, the commission, presently chaired by the Very Reverend Dr Graham Forbes, has a quarter-century of experience in navigating these difficult waters. I hope Sir Mark Rowley, the Met Commissioner, draws on that experience in the coming days.

One of the few certainties of a liberal, pluralist society is that you will be offended; routinely so, in all probability. The defining characteristic of a heterogeneous community is its cacophony of voices. Indeed, this is the essence of democracy: what distinguishes (for instance) this country and Israel from the theocracy of the Hamas regime, the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the repressive surveillance state of China.

Horrors like the slaughter of October 7, beyond the primary agony they inflict upon a particular people or nation, spray psychological shrapnel all over the world. The principal mission of the Hamas terrorists on that terrible day was to kill as many Jews as possible, as brutally as they could. But they had other objectives, too; objectives involving every country that counts Israel as an ally.

The Islamists want us to turn in on ourselves and to dilute our essential freedoms. They want us, in rage, to compromise our most precious values. It is absolutely essential that we deny them that satisfaction.

Matthew d’Ancona is an Evening Standard columnist and contributing editor of Prospect