Picture credit: Guy Smallman/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Have the police criminalised being “openly Jewish”?

It is unacceptable for the police to blame the victims of potential bigotry

If you want an illustration of what has gone so vastly wrong with the Metropolitan Police, you need only look at one of the interactions between a Jewish man and a police officer at a recent pro-Palestine march. 

As thousands of noisy activists stream past them, many screaming and chanting as they go, having been informed by a police officer that he is “openly Jewish” he is also told he will be arrested for a “breach of the peace” unless he goes elsewhere. Another officer says that the man’s “presence here is antagonising a large group of people and we can’t deal with all of them if they attack you”.

It is worth giving thought to how such a scene might have played out if different religions or ethnicities were involved.

You’re quite openly black. This is a BNP march. I’m not accusing you of anything but am worried about the reaction to your presence.”

“You’re quite openly Muslim. This is an EDL march. I’m not accusing you of anything but am worried about the reaction to your presence.” 

Such statements would quite rightly be met with widespread public disgust. How have we come to a situation where a law-abiding Jewish man on the streets of London can be treated by a police officer with such casual disregard? 

How can other London minorities have confidence that their own presence on London’s streets will not one day become an operational inconvenience for the police?

It is all the more tragic that this incident took place on Aldwych in central London, within yards of St. Clement Danes. This elegant Wren edifice serves as the memorial church for the RAF whose own officers made the ultimate sacrifice for the democratic freedoms and privileges the police are supposed to protect. London itself has offered sanctuary to the global oppressed and afflicted for centuries, why then should the persecution they have fled from find fresh purchase here?

While the police officers involved made a gross error of judgement, those policing the protest frontline are operating in the context given to them by senior officers.

Too little attention has been paid to the recent comments of Neil Basu, a former Assistant Commissioner with the Met Police. He was reported as saying that suppressing people from “legitimate protests” over the Israel-Gaza conflict could “fuel more extremism” and might drive those on the fringes to look “somewhere else”. Is this the view of the Met’s current senior leadership? Who in the Met did Mr Basu discuss this intervention with before it was made?

Last weekend’s incident is revealing of a strategic calculation by the Met’s senior leadership that they are willing to tolerate almost anything from activist protestors — while for others even their presence is to be considered worthy of arrest. 

It is, to use a term coined by Policy Exchange, the very definition of “Differential Policing”.

Last weekend represented just the latest episode in a list of the police’s failures when it comes to recent protests. Since October’s Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel we have seen the surrender of the Capital’s streets to a rolling campaign of mass marches. So far twelve marches have happened since October. There is no sign of the protest organisers losing their enthusiasm. 

Over recent months these supposedly peaceful demonstrations have included individuals throwing flares, shouting antisemitic chants, and calling for there to be a “Jihad”. In what world are such events considered “peaceful”? It is a complete subversion of the word. 

No doubt if pressed the Met would solemnly intone their respect for people’s “right to protest”. But what of everyone else’s rights? Where is the right of, not just a Jewish person, but anyone to walk safely around our capital city? What are the police afraid of? Who is pulling the strings of the Commissioner and his senior officers in Scotland Yard?

As the pro-Palestine activists continue to escalate their campaigns of disruption, we find the Met engaging in a “balancing of rights” exercise to adjudge whose rights, and which, are to be prioritised. On one side are the rights of protestors to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — neither of which are absolute but are subject to limitations “as necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security and public safety”. On the other side the rights of the ordinary person to be able to go about their daily lives. 

In the footage published on social media the police officer’s reference to the “large group of people” is particularly instructive as to what has gone wrong. This is nothing less than a confession that the Met’s approach has created a de facto right of larger groups to overwhelm the rights of everyone else. The “discourse of threat”, whereby protest groups threaten to mobilise ever greater numbers onto the streets and which has permeated the various protests over the last six months, has been successful in leaving the authorities reduced to cowering in response. 

The police have traditionally taken the approach that protests should be contained and controlled. It is surely now legitimate, after six months of rolling protests, to ask whether we have reached the point where the police should be more confrontational in preventing the scale of disruption being experienced week after week. 

That would be a significant departure from the status quo — and undoubtedly comes with risks. But unless we are willing to see our streets continually given over to a form of anarchy the groups involved give us little choice. 

The Met’s approach to the relentless protesting on our streets is now one of the bellwethers which tells us whether the Met’s senior leaders have got their priorities right. Tragically we are now far from the standard that any law-abiding member of the public should be able to expect from the forces of law and order. 

We are often told that one of London’s strengths is its diversity. But as long as this diversity is in effect used by the police to control which groups do and don’t enjoy full access to our public realm, then the Met risks being as instrumental in fostering sectarian division in our capital city as the marches themselves.

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