Protesters of Israel-Hamas war fear nuance is getting lost
| View caption Hide caption
Israel’s war against Hamas has unleashed a torrent of responses from Westerners, both positive and negative. Many are finding it a challenge to express their feelings without being co-opted by darker forces in society.
Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent brutal siege of Gaza have sparked protests across North America and Europe, some for Palestinians or for Israelis, some against antisemitism or against Islamophobia. And while authorities, media, and commentators across social media have painted them in broad strokes, the protests have persisted – and exacerbated societal divides.
But the protests also are places where many of those trying to make themselves heard feel at risk of being misunderstood, co-opted by radicals on both sides, intentionally or not. Protesters seeking to speak against rising antisemitism worry about being conflated with hawkish supporters of Israeli’s military action. Marchers for Palestinian rights fret that their voices may be lumped in with those who back Hamas and the terror it has perpetrated against Israeli citizens over decades.
In the end, most people say they hold more nuanced views than the binary they’ve been forced into.
“I’m not pro-Palestine but incredibly sad about the deaths of Palestinians,” says Nicole de Colomb, a protester in Paris. “You can be against antisemitism and also sad for Palestinians who have died, just as you can be in support of Jewish people and against [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
View caption Hide caption
“Injustice that used to be invisible”
Tensions continue to ratchet up. France has registered 1,159 antisemitic acts since Oct. 7, compared with 436 during the whole of 2022, as well as a smaller but clear rise in Islamophobia. The Canadian Human Rights Commission issued a recent statement condemning a “dramatic rise in Islamophobia, antisemitism, and racism-fueled hate” in the wake of a conflict that for many Canadians is “deeply personal and painful.”
In Montreal, where police have noted a rise in hate directed at Muslims and Jews, they are investigating Molotov cocktails thrown at a Montreal synagogue and bullets shot at Jewish schools, generating condemnation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “This is not who we are as Canadians,” he said.
View caption Hide caption
It’s in that context that pro-Palestinian demonstrators have been condemned – labeled rashly as Nazis or terrorists.
Elisa, who prefers not to share her last name for privacy, looks at the crowd around her at the Toronto protest. She has long attended pro-Palestinian marches with her Palestinian former partner, and says the movement is a mainstream one that goes well beyond religion.
She does not trust Mr. Trudeau, in part because he has not called for a cease-fire. Nor does she trust the mainstream media, which she thinks are biased. But “at least people are getting educated about injustice that used to be invisible,” she says.
In many European countries, such protests have been banned or restricted. Germany is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in Europe, but in the capital, authorities have been issuing general bans on pro-Palestinian protests, or breaking up those that occur.
“Any form of antisemitism poisons our society, as Islamist demonstrations and rallies are doing now,” said Chancellor Olaf Scholz in prepared remarks on Nov. 9, the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht. “The promise on which our democratic Germany is founded … the promise ‘never again’ … we must keep this promise right now. … Oct. 7 allows only one conclusion: Germany’s place is by Israel’s side.”
Yet amid decades of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a German reflex to refer to history is “wearing a bit thin,” says Wieland Hoban, a board member of Jüdische Stimme, or Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. “Eleven thousand people have been killed [in Gaza]. Where’s the red line? Something’s become visible in society where people here are willing to accept a genocide as long as they have some kind of excuse for tolerating it.”
View caption Hide caption
In fact, attitudes among the public are mixed on the conflict. A November poll commissioned by broadcaster ARD found 35% of respondents consider Israel’s response to the Hamas attack appropriate, while 40% say it goes too far.
Palestinians are used to media bias, says Tim Smith, a spokesperson for the Palestine Campaign, which fights for the freedom to assemble around a free Palestine. “But in Germany, the problem seems to be more extreme, to the point where Palestinian voices are just completely marginalized and demonized,” he says.
Fabian Virchow, head of a research unit on extremism at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, says radicals have infiltrated some marches and been banned. Antisemitic chants like “from the river to the sea” – a slogan Hamas has used to call for abolition of the Israeli state – have been declared illegal. But banning marches altogether could lead to more alienation. “[It] might offer radical antisemites starting points for recruitment,” he says.
“A huge eye-opener”
France, which tried but failed to issue a blanket ban on pro-Palestinian protests, has seen politicians using demonstrations for electoral gain.
Saturday’s antisemitism rally was called by the speakers of the two chambers of the French Parliament. But far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose father – the founder of the National Front – was fined several times for comments deemed antisemitic, took center stage, angering some protesters. Many view her support as veiled Islamophobia.
View caption Hide caption
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who earlier created controversy by not condemning the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, refused to attend. So did Muslim leaders. The French Council of Muslim Faith said in a statement beforehand, “This march, which has the exclusive objective of denouncing antisemitism without a word on Islamophobia, is unfortunately not likely to bring people together.” But leftist and Muslim leaders attended a march the day before calling for a cease-fire.
Members of France’s Jewish community – the second-largest Jewish population outside Israel – say they feel unsupported by the government. “We feel deeply French,” says Sam, a protester in Paris who asked to use only his last name. “But we’re asking ourselves the question, do we have a future here?”
Suzanne Nakache, the co-president of Langage des Femmes, a Paris-based nonprofit that works to build bridges between women of all faiths, says their work is more important than ever. She says she was dismayed that many of the Muslim members of her organization didn’t respond to the organization’s call to attend the march against antisemitism.
“This has been a huge eye-opener for us,” she says. “Until now, we’ve felt that it was a political issue that could not be easily resolved and certainly not by us. But now we see that we’ve been taken over by propaganda – in the media, on social networks – and we must do something to educate our members. … We need to educate people so they understand that to be Jewish doesn’t mean to be anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian. It’s very complicated.”
Annette Wieviorka, a French historian who studies the Holocaust and is also Jewish, says that building understanding between communities is one way to cut through the politics and media takes. Recently, she was on the Paris metro and heard a man mumbling to himself, “I want Jewish people to leave; I wish they would go away.” Ms Wieviorka turned to him and said, “I’m Jewish; why do you say that?”
“After that, we talked for a little while and he ended up apologizing to me,” she says. He told her, “‘All I want is peace.’”