First, the story in pictures. (The photos are by Chris, from Indymedia. For reports on other demonstrations around the country on 17 January, click here. Another set of photos from Sheffield: click here).
And in words:
The 17 January Gaza vigil/march in Sheffield was the same story as 10 January, only with the levels of hostility to AWL ratcheted up massively due to the presence of a large contingent of SWPers (who were missing last week, when they all went to London). Our banner ("Israel out of the occupied territories/two nations, two states") was tolerated, but things really kicked off when Louise Gold arrived with one of our placards ("solidarity with workers, women and the left" on one side and "no to the IDF, no to Hamas") on the other.
A fingers-in-faces screaming match ensued, with Permanent Revolution people the most vociferous. They claimed the slogan was equivalent to even-handed condemnations of the violence during the miners' strike, screamed that we were scabs and demanded that we leave the demonstration. I found this particularly amusing given that they were distributing HOPI leaflets bearing the headline slogan "no to US imperialism, no to the Islamic regime." (Apparently it's different because there isn't actually a war on in Iran at the moment.)
In the midst of all the fuss, the main PSC organiser (a Palestinian guy called Mushir who's been around the Sheffield left for years) grabbed the placard out of Louise's hands and tore it to pieces. The gathered SWPers, PR people and most of the other demonstrators cheered loudly. The lone A-Fed member tried to defend us but didn't have much of an impact.
The upside for us in all of this is that it drew a great deal of attention to us, and several people did come over to express their sympathy and opposition to what had happened to our placard, if not their political support.
Alistair Tice, the local SP full-timer, spoke at the rally and made a very mealy-mouthed, low-level speech that was sort of two-states-ish. When I questioned him about what happened to us, he said that obviously he opposed it and basically agreed with the sentiment implied by the slogan but also intimated that we should've expected such treatment because of how "crassly" we'd posed things. This was a common refrain in arguments we had (or tried to have) with people about the issue - i.e. that we'd only made the placard to "cause trouble". On a certain level, I guess that's true; we raise the slogan to make people think about the politics of the matter and if that equates to "causing trouble" then fine, that's why we did it. But the Stalinoid nature of people's reactions - i.e. anything that swims in any way against the current of the hegemonic politics arbitrarily and undemocratically imposed on the demo by the forces that happen, by sheer weight of numbers more than anything else, to control the movement, must be physically crushed - was still pretty shocking.
We got a few email addresses out of it, gave out lots of leaflets and sold lots of papers so all in all, another reminder of how terrible the political "common sense" of the Palestine solidarity movement is and how necessary our interventions continue to be.
[Editor's note: Chris the photographer posted a comment demanding credit for the photos. The credit appears above].
Chris, on your indymedia posting, an article by Permanent Revolution has been given a high-profile spot - can AWL have the same privilege in the spirit of fair play in political debate? Your talk of 'political censorship' is reading (in between the lines) as slightly disingenuous....
“An open letter to Sheffield’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Left and socialists committed to Palestinian solidarity” by Sheffield AWL Branch
The AWL is a socialist organisation which is completely opposed to the ongoing siege on Gaza. The recent, brutal bombing campaign by Israel on Gaza represented a mini colonial war, and is part of this prolonged siege. Gaza is an “open air prison”. It forms part of long term attacks on the Occupied Territories (for example, it’s carving up into bantustans so as to deny Palestinians any kind of effective, meaningful nation-state). Kadima and Labor (in the run up to elections against their main rival Likud) were demonstrating their toughness, and sought revenge for the 2006 defeat. This was done in a grossly disproportionate, inhumane war. We are for solidarity with the Palestinian people, and for full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. We support a viable and consistent democratic solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which in our view means an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel (and with the same rights as Israel). This political position is highly unpopular with some on the British left. Groups such as the SWP advocate a different political perspective and are opposed to the continued existence of Israel. Within the wider Palestinian solidarity movement and within the labour movement there are many varied political perspectives on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We support the view that debate and discussion of these differences is a necessary part of our solidarity work. We also consider it important to highlight the struggles that do take place of working class organisations in both Israel and within the Occupied Territories. We support those in Israel who oppose the actions of the Israeli state, for example, the Refuseniks and the anti-war movement.
We believe our main job at present is to make solidarity with the Palestinians against the Israeli siege. We also believe that solidarity with the Palestinians should not mean solidarity with their Hamas leaders. Hamas rejects a democratic solution on the lines set out above. Their goal, instead, is to destroy Israel and deny the Israelis national rights. Hamas is an Arab chauvinist, Islamist chauvinist, anti-Semitic movement. Hamas are part of an extreme rightwing movement that has played a highly reactionary role throughout the Muslim world, threatening the democratic rights of workers' movements, women, gay people, secular and ex-Muslims, national and religious minorities and others. We believe that to support them, or fail to criticise them, is a betrayal of the Palestinian workers whose strikes they have suppressed; the Palestinian women they have attacked for refusing to put on the hijab, and so on. That is why we included our opposition to Hamas on the placard that was ripped up at the demonstration outside the Sheffield Town Hall on Saturday 17th January 2009. There was no intention to imply any sense of proportionality in the Israeli government's brutal bombardment of Gaza. It was simply to make clear that we continue to criticise Hamas.
There must be no political censorship of the Left by the Left on demonstrations.
We realise that many people will not share our political perspective. There are also many who do have sympathy both with our 'two states' position and our opposition to Hamas. We brought placards and a banner which demonstrate our solidarity with the Palestinians and our opposition to Hamas. We did not in any way disrupt, or attempt to disrupt, the demonstration which we were there to participate in. We do however feel obliged as socialists to be true to our political perspective and raise criticisms even if they are unpopular. We accept that not everyone will agree with everything we say just as we do not agree with the politics of all the other placards present. We are not opportunists that simply and crudely desire to stand apart from the crowd - we are committed to our politics, and will (if necessary) bravely enter a politically hostile milieu uncompromised in our politics.
Members of the AWL have been involved in demonstrations and actions for years and never have we experienced what took place on Saturday 17th January 2009 in Sheffield. A placard which read "No to the IDF. No to Hamas" was forcibly removed from a young woman's hands and torn up and stamped on in front of the crowd, a majority of whom cheered and clapped (including members of the Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the SWP and Permanent Revolution, who are all very hostile to any 'two states' position). This is a disturbing level of intolerance and censorship. Some argued disingenuously that we were equating the two, but it was very clear to anyone who chose to speak to us or read our literature that, we oppose the two for critically important political reasons but in no way consider the two equal. We hope that activists in Sheffield will take a serious look at this incident. This is no way to deal with political disagreements amongst us. This kind of censorship and the intolerance it breeds is unacceptable. We are not asking you to agree with our political perspective but we are asking you to support our right to raise criticism of Hamas on demonstrations. This is a basic democratic principle and we would uphold it for others. Already one anonymous posting on Indymedia has said we were "lucky not to be beaten up" and another, they would join in "chasing us off". Someone claiming to be a member of Sheffield's Palestine Solidarity Campaign called "Steve" has written: "maybe simply ripping down and stamping on their banner is not going far enough. Maybe they need a stronger disincentive, preferably undertaken away from the glare of those on the demo where so they can't go bleating on about their 'rights'. This wouldn't have to necessarily be violent." This needs to stop now.
We are for solidarity with the Palestinians and will continue to participate in actions and demonstrations in Sheffield and elsewhere.
Hamas is still formally for the dissolution of Israel, i.e. in its constitution and via its ideological teaching to cadre members. However, Hamas leaders have indeed hinted to a possible two-state settlement, but the wording of the actual, longer quotes of what has been said implies 'temporary' recognition of Israel. Hamas may at some point in the future change their position unambiguously. But my general critique of Hamas as an Islamist organisation remains, as does my opposition to what Islamism stands for and practices. Thanks for posting the article btw.