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Artillery Row

Don’t ban anti-Israel marches

Principled and pragmatic arguments for prohibition are weak

There have been renewed calls to ban pro-Palestine protests from British streets. Suella Braverman has argued that protests should be banned if they are “posing a disproportionate risk of serious disorder”. “We’ve had over six months of two-tier policing, double-standards and provocations,” says the pro-Israel commentator Bella Wallersteiner, “Enough is enough.” “There is a risk of serious criminality on these marches,” announces former detective and policing expert Peter Bleksley, “Get them banned.”

I disagree.

In saying I disagree, I am not disputing that these protests have contained disgraceful elements. There has been violence against police officers. There have been calls for jihad. Peaceful counter-protestors have been attacked. Jewish observers have been subjected to abuse. In these instances, the perpetrators should have been arrested. They were breaking the law.

I am not disputing, too, that most of the marchers hold opinions I would put on a scale between “foolish” and “hideous” — from the dim utopianism of the “one state solution” to the explicitly aggressive third worldism of “decolonisation”

So, why do I disagree with banning the marches? Firstly, I am not convinced that the scale of the criminality which they contain has been demonstrated to exist to a significant enough degree. It is not sufficient to demonstrate that they contain criminal elements. It must be demonstrated that they contain criminal elements on such a scale as to constitute an unmanageable risk. 

Suella Braverman raised the case of Gideon Falter, a Jewish man and chief executive of Campaign Against Antisemitism, who was warned by a Metropolitan Police officer that being “openly Jewish” at an anti-Israel demonstration might amount to a “breach of peace”. There is a debate about whether Mr Falter was believed to be at risk because of his Jewishness or because of his clear pro-Israel sympathies, but that seems beside the point. The officer’s mistake, as far as I can tell, was to stop him at all without clear signs of impending violence.

But let’s get more cynical. In my opinion, to take the major step of banning pro-Palestine protests would be to attack the left at its most sympathetic. Like it or not, the average member of the public has some amount of sympathy with the demonstrators’ cause. Most Britons back a ceasefire in Gaza. More Britons think that Israel’s conduct since October 7th has been unjustified than think that it has been legitimate. A majority of voters support a ban on arms sales to Israel. This does not mean the average Britain would emerge from a conversation with the average anti-Israel activist thinking they were anything but a sinister crackpot. But there were a lot of sinister crackpots among campaigners against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and no one looks back and shudders over them because the broader outlines of their cause seem sympathetic. 

A vague case for banning mostly law-abiding protests, indeed, undermines the clear justice of the case against explicitly illegal methods like obstructing roads and damaging property. It affirms the most opportunistic narratives of groups like Just Stop Oil and Palestine Action.

Do we want to make it easier for a Labour government to prohibit law-abiding protests

Secondly, to create new laws for banning largely law-abiding protests would be to hand a gift to Keir Starmer just before he — in all probability — comes to power. Mrs Braverman was in Brussels last week, where the police and local politicians attempted to shut down NatCon Brussels 2 for the spurious reason of “guaranteeing public safety”. Do we want to make it easier for a Labour government to prohibit law-abiding protests related to matters like immigration or civil liberties? Granted, if Starmer wants to prohibit them he will probably find a way. But to hand him a big, fat, juicy precedent seems unwise.

As Evan Riggs observes, the protests could get more nasty in the summer. Violent crime rises when the weather is warm — perhaps because of physiological effects but perhaps also because it is easier to stay outside. Even violent criminals don’t like the cold.

If violence spirals out of control then perhaps demonstrations will have to be banned. My assessment here is based on present circumstances rather than a timeless principle.

Still, when I see liberal Tories and Blairite social democrats wringing their hands over the demonstrations I cannot escape the sense that they are appalled by a meal they ordered. Implementing very liberal immigration policies and then being shocked and outraged by the appearance of unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcome ideologies and attachments feels like blaming the ground when you fail to pull off an overambitious skateboard trick. What did you expect? As much as I sympathise with concern about the uglier aspects of these protests, banning them will not do away with the attachments and beliefs than drive them. It will just make their existence more deniable.

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