Fifty days in the summer: Gaza, political protest and antisemitism in the UK

The All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism has published a report they commissioned me to write.

This is the opening page:

On 12 June 2014, three Israeli teenagers were abducted in the West Bank, against a backdrop of heightened tension between the Israeli state and Palestinian forces, including a renewal of settlement-building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The abduction was followed by days of escalating violence, including a massive Israeli policing operation in the West Bank, the murder of a Palestinian teenager after the bodies of the kidnapped Israelis were found, and increasing numbers of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. A series of Israeli air strikes on targets in Gaza on the night of 30 June-1 July marked the start of sustained Israel’s military engagement, and Operation Protective Edge was launched on 8 July, comprising initially of airstrikes on targets associated with rocket fire (with around 200 people killed in the strikes), followed by ground engagement a week later. De-escalation began on 3 August, with Israel withdrawing ground troops from Gaza, and an open-ended ceasefire concluded this round of the conflict on 26 August. In total, over 2100 Palestinians were killed (with estimates of civilians ranging between 50% and 76% of the losses), along with 66 Israeli combatants, 5 Israeli civilians and 1 Thai national.

There were demonstrations against Israel’s prosecution of the conflict across the world, including several in the UK, as well as other manifestations of protest, such as public calls for and acts of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. There were some reports of antisemitic content in some of these demonstrations, against a broader context in which antisemitic incidents spiked dramatically. Over 130 antisemitic were recorded by the Community Security Trust (CST) in July, making it the highest monthly total since January 2009 (a previous period of war in Gaza and Israel’s Operation Cast Lead).

This short report examines the 2014 protests, exploring the extent and degree of antisemitism in the anti-Israel protests, as well as the reporting of this antisemitism and its impact on the Jewish community. It focuses in particular on the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge.

The research questions which this report attempts to address are:

  • What were the predominant discourses in the UK protests relating to Operation Protective Edge?

  • Were antisemitic discourses present? If so, how prevalent were they?

  • Are UK protests relating to Operation Protective Edge comparable in scale and in discourse to protests relating to other conflicts?

  • How do these issues relate to mainstream and Jewish media reporting on the conflict and on the demonstrations?

  • How do these issues and their media representation affect Jewish feelings about antisemitism?

My report was one of a series of sub-reports which are also available on the APPGAA’s website. These sub-reports were drawn on in the APPGAA’s own report and recommendations.

For the purposes of shameless self-promotion, here are extracts from the report which cite me:

33. …We were told there was an “unprecedented level of fear and anxiety during summer” with people said to be “worried, depressed, and unable to sleep” and having “avoided colleagues and neighbours to forestall aggressive attempts to draw them into argument about Gaza”30. In a report we commissioned to aid our deliberations, Dr Ben Gidley, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at COMPAS, University of Oxford explains that the fear of antisemitism does not necessarily correspond with incident statistics, in the same way that crime and the fear of crime might not necessarily correlate31. However, he is clear that subjective experiences and feelings must be taken seriously. Dr Gidley also argues that the media bear a particular responsibility to handle reporting of antisemitism carefully so as not to “amplify  insecurity”.


130. Rallying for a political cause is not only a well-established and important tradition in British politics, it is a fundamental expression of political freedom and an inalienable right for British citizens. In the report we commissioned to aid our deliberations, Dr Ben Gidley reviewed the protests activities of the summer and themes in the related discourse. He explained that UK activism against Israel’s actions was heterogeneous, as with most protests and political social movements. Amongst other activities there were weekly marches, by typically a coalition of organisations, to or from the Israeli embassy and pickets outside the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). Barclays, Marks and Spencer and other places148.

131. We were pleased to learn that the protests that occurred during the summer of 2014, were in broad terms less violent and led to fewer public order incidents than the protests of 2009149. So too, greater efforts were said to have been made to minimise antisemitism and in analysing the images of demonstrations, we were told that researchers found the majority of messages not to be antisemitic150.


151. […]  Using various analytical tools, Dr Ben Gidley found that there had been particularly intense coverage of protests and demonstrations against Israel and the conflict in general when compared to other countries and conflicts179. He argued that the excessive focus on Israel in the media allows for inappropriate language to be used, although we discuss this in a later section. The anger about media coverage was somewhat personified for many of the complainants by way of Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newsreader whom made a very personal video about the plight of the children of Gaza that was posted initially to YouTube and then the Channel 4 website180.


155. During an oral evidence session, it was put to us by Dr Ben Gidley, that there was a circulation of discourse across ideological lines183. He expanded on this phenomenon in his paper for us, suggesting that since 2000 there has been bi-directional “cross pollination” between different  ideological traditions around hostility towards Isra el. In this scenario, messages from far-right and other extremist groups were circulated outside of their original context whilst far-right antisemitic movements “borrow the language of anti-Zionism as a cover for their racism” allowing for a wide distribution of hate material184. Gidley points to the blood libel and ‘Jewish lobby’ being key antisemitic themes that can circulate and provides examples of where this has happened both online and subsequently at demonstrations. Whilst accepting that most of the messages shared are done so in good faith and without antisemitic intent, Gidley warns that this material can legitimise and normalise antisemitic discourse, reinforce and draw people to more ideological antisemitism.


370. There was some debate between those from whom we took expert testimony regarding the nuances of the definition of antisemitism when it comes to Nazi comparison. It was noted that whilst sometimes it can be wrong, misleading and hurtful not all comparisons are antisemitic and there is a key question of context and intent. That intent was said by Professor Paul Iganski to be particularly important as many that use certain Nazi imagery “know full well it hurts”. Dr Ben Gidley supports this assertion, arguing that application of a ‘Holocaust inversion” as the frame for understanding the actions of the Jewish state “is not neutral” given the rarity of its use in other protests390.


384. There is a requirement for a more sophisticated understanding and definition of antisemitism. This should recognise that whilst people may not have been antisemites nor had any antisemitic intent in their communications (and indeed would be shocked to think it) they have in fact been employing antisemitic language or themes and the impact of their words is significant. So too, it should be clearer that even when not antisemitic, aspects of debate are deeply offensive to Jews and in some way impact upon their rightful ability to identify with Israel. To this extent context matters and must be taken into account. As Ben Gidley told us, ‘Free Gaza’ graffiti may not be problematic but when daubed across a synagogue door it is404. Any definition might also take into account a number of other factors, such as the consequences and effects or language or that since criticism of Israeli policy is not antisemitic so too defence of Israeli policy should not utomatically be seen as an appropriate or effective means of expressing opposition to antisemitism.

For media coverage of the report, see here.


About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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