The Men Who Were Not There

Discussing the inappropriate placards some people bring on demonstrations, and how they catch the eye of photographers, reminded one old stager of a strange little episode he watched unfold many years ago in Park Lane, involving a small demonstration and two men who were not part of it, but were photographed nevertheless.,

The Men Who Were Not There (a strange tale of yesteryear)

It was back in the 1980s, when Ariel Sharon, unhindered by the fresh memory of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, for which Israel's Kahane Commission found him culpable,  served a spell as Trade and Industry Minister while setting his sights on the top job. In that capacity he paid a visit to Britain, and among other things, spoke at a trade dinner at a hotel in Park Lane.

We held a small demonstration against his visit, on a corner near the hotel, which several of the dinner guests had to pass.  It was a fairly quiet affair, some Palestinians and members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), plus a couple of us from the JSG.

We had not long been gathered, with our posters displayed on the crowd barrier in front, when two tallish young men, faces swathed in kefiot, came up to join us from behind, carrying hand-painted placards which depicted Israeli flags, with over-large Magen Davids for emphasis, with equals signs, and Nazi swastika flags.  It was crude and eye-catching, but not  in keeping with the theme of our other placards or the tone which we wanted to present.

John Gee, of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, spoke to the young men, telling them they were welcome to join the demonstration, but the placards they were waving were not.  We were not there to offend people, but to remind them of Sharon's record. One of the men protested petulantly that he had "spent all afternoon making the placrds", while the other grew more aggressive, cutting short John's explanation, by saying something  like "It all depends whether you want to serve the Jews or not".

At this, John told them firmly: "We have Jewish people taking part in this demonstration with us, and if you have a problem with that you had better go".   

If the two were unwilling to depart without arguing, a young copper who had been near enough to hear what was said intervened. "Look, you have been told you're not wanted here by these people, I suggest you go".

So the two strangers departed with their offending placards down the street whence they had came, but then they reappeared shorty on the corner opposite. There a man with a camera had been waiting, patiently. I had not seen him take any photographs yet. But now he got the two men to stand with their placards held high, and their faces still swathed in kefiahs, while he took their photograph.

"Look, their pal's taking their picture!", I remarked to my fellow demonstrators. I had no idea who the two with the placards were.  They both spoke with educated, upper-class  accents, but were they perhaps  English antisemites trying to infiltrate our demonstration, I  naievely wandered, or two Middle Easterners down from Oxford for the day?  As for the man with the camera, he obviously was not with us, and if he seemed in too little hurry to be press,  I thought he might have some connection with Sharon's security.

We did get to see the picture.  

It appeared in a publication called "Action Briefing" published ostensibly by the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women(AJEX).  I say "ostensibly" because though it bore AJEX's name, some AJEX members, among them my Dad, never received a copy, and when one of my JSG comrades rang the contact no. given he found himself speaking to a person at the Board of Deputies' then Woburn House headquarters, and not the AJEX office.

There had been an AJEX  Action Briefing published in the 1940s, when Jewish ex-servicemen played an important part in Jewish defence, and that Briefing kept its readers up to date on the post-war activities of Sir Oswald Mosley's British fascists and similar antisemites.

By the 1980s the number of  fit and able ex-services personnel available for stewarding and security was reduced, and the Community Security Organisation (now Trust) was not yet widely known, People stlll associated security with AJEX, and for this and its welfare work, as well as the annual remembrance parades, brand AJEX was a trusted name.

The reborn  'Action Briefing' however was something different. In the two issues I saw the fascists and racists had been replaced by such new threats as the London Friends of Palestine and the visiting Bir Zeit Folk Dance Ensemble.  A Jewish friend of mine, -he'd been my first madrich (youth leader) at Habonim camp - found his name among those listed, and  wondered nervously what sort of "action" readers were being briefed for. Were they supposed to throw stones through his windows, or what?

Anyway, here they were in the 'Action Briefing', our two young men in keffiahs, alongside a report saying Jewish Socialists had joined with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in a demonstration against Ariel Sharon. Which was true. Only the two young men in keffiahs with their placards equating the magen david and swastika flags were described as "Muslim fundamentalists" taking part in the same PSC demonstration.

Whereas the two - whether they were fundamntalists or even Muslims I don't know -had not been taking part in our demonstration, because they and their placards had not been allowed to take part. As the JSG pointed out, in a letter which we managed to give AJEX members arriving for their AGM, the photo in the Action Briefing only showed the two man with their placards. No one else was in sight. If the two were taking part in a demonstration where were the rest of the demonstrators?

Had the man with the camera been waiting for the two to take their place in our demonstration with their placards, only to be denied the picture he wanted? So he had to make do with his posed shot which was not nearly as good.  But if he had been waiting for them, that suggests they really were pals, as I'd joked.

More recently it has not been necessary to contrive such arrangements for the photographers for the CST or whatever to get their shots of offending placards, though it must have taken some effort to spot them amongst such huge crowds. And considering the number of stewards that woud have been necessary to pick them out, it takes the Jewish Chronicle's editor Stephen Pollard to  assert that we are all tainted with "antisemitism" as a result of taking part in the protests. Whereas by such smears Mr.Pollard is more than tainted himself, with the bloodshed in Gaza.

Charlie Pottins


Posted: 7 August 2014