Pro-Palestine activists say they are accused of being anti-Semitic while criticising Israel, as Jewish groups fear attacks.
Glasgow, United Kingdom – On Saturday, Wael Shawish, a retired project manager, plans to attend a rally in Glasgow to demonstrate his solidarity with Palestine, as Israel bombs Gaza.
A Palestinian who has lived in Scotland for 38 years, he will be doing so in the face of the British government’s unwavering support for Israel – and as Home Secretary Suella Braverman tries to crack down on certain acts of pro-Palestine support.
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This week, as the British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly rushed to visit and support Israel after Hamas’s unprecedented attacks, Braverman urged British police to consider whether chanting phrases such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” could be treated as “racially aggravated” crimes.
Writing to chief constables of England and Wales on Tuesday, she reaffirmed the British government’s support of “legitimate Israeli defensive measures” and its commitment to protecting Britain’s Jewish community from “anti-Semitic abuse”.
The latest Israel-Hamas crisis has resonated across the United Kingdom, and reignited old tensions between supporters of Israel and those who condemn the occupation and advocate for Palestinian rights.
Many pro-Palestine campaigners say that over the years, they have increasingly been condemned as anti-Semitic, claiming accusations of anti-Jewish racism are used to silence them.
Referring to Israel as an apartheid regime, advocating for the rights of Palestinians and rising up against Israeli occupiers have in the past been seized on by pro-Israel commentators as examples of anti-Semitism.
According to Shawish, pro-Israel campaigners have “weaponised anti-Semitism”, and he knows several activists who are “terrified” of the label.
The Glasgow resident, who told Al Jazeera that it was “painful to see the loss of life on both sides”, lamented “that the Western media only shows interest in our part of the world when Israelis are killed and targeted”.
“Our advice is always to remain objective and focused on verified and publicly available information and always ensure that we do not conflate the Jewish people with Israel,” he said.
“Israel is a state and is not beyond criticism.”
Saturday’s offensive in Israel by Hamas – the armed group that has controlled the impoverished Palestinian territory of Gaza since 2007 – took the world by surprise.
Israel has accused the group of killing hundreds of civilians, including children, and taken many hostage in Gaza. The Palestinian group denies deliberately targeting civilians but admits taking several people captive.
Israel responded to the attacks with fury, bombarding Gaza relentlessly, and imposing a total blockade on the already besieged strip. It is widely expected that its promised ground invasion of Gaza will begin within days.
More than 2,800 people have been confirmed killed in less than a week, a toll that includes Palestinians, Israelis and some foreigners.
The war has stirred a sense of Palestinian solidarity across some sections of society in Britain, which, during its days of empire, held colonial sway over Palestine for some three decades prior to the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
On Monday, thousands of pro-Palestinian activists massed in London, where the bulk of the UK’s Arab and Jewish populations live.
This came just 24 hours after Israel, which is deemed an apartheid state by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on account of its occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, responded to Hamas’s audacious assault by declaring war on the Palestinian group.
“The Palestinian struggle is inherently anti-racist in nature,” Leanne Mohamad, a 23-year-old British-Palestinian human rights activist based in the capital, told Al Jazeera.
“Opposing Israel’s severe actions against Palestinians and opposing anti-Semitism are not mutually exclusive principles.”
She described an “increasingly hostile environment today” for activists and observers, “where one cannot guarantee that expressing their views will not lead to attacks, fuelled by the dangerous conflation of anti-Semitism with the constitutional order of the State of Israel.
“This conflation of course poses a grave threat to the fundamental rights of Palestinians to articulate their lived experiences and the rights of others to advocate on their behalf.”
Like Shawish, she also plans to attend a pro-Palestine demonstration this weekend, in London.
“We must persist in our battle against injustice, not solely for the sake of Palestine but for the cause of humanity, for the preservation of human rights, and as a stance against supremacy, racism and imperialism,” Mohamad said.
“It is so important that we collectively continue speaking up and continue protesting all the governments that are encouraging this unimaginable atrocity.”
But Chris Doyle, director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), said both sides have used inflammatory language – in the past and during this current crisis.
“Some genuine anti-Semites had decided to hop on the Palestinian rights movement” for their own nefarious ends, he told Al Jazeera.
“Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric” were also apparent among some supporters of Israel, he said.
Doyle cited the “appalling” comments made by Richard Ferrer, editor of Britain’s Jewish News, who wrote in a UK newspaper that Hamas’s assault on Israel was “plain and simple historic Islamic bloodlust, passed down through the generations from birth”.
As battle lines were drawn on social media, there Jewish schools in the UK stepped up their security to guard against potential anti-Semitic attacks against pupils.
The Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Semitism, said anti-Jewish incidents had risen since Hamas’s assault.
Between October 7 and 10, it said, there were at least 89 incidents, compared with 21 over the same four days in 2022.
“In many cases, the perpetrators of these disgraceful incidents are using the symbols and language of pro-Palestinian politics as rhetorical weapons with which to threaten and abuse Jewish people,” the group alleged.
Separately, the Muslim Council of Britain warned that it was “crucial we do not allow these tensions to affect our communities here in the UK. There is the risk that at times like these both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism rise.
“We must be proactive to ensure that this is not the case and our communities can come together for the common good.”