Israel/Palestine,  Your View

Everybody be Cool: Notes on a Counter-Protest

This is a guest-post from Alex Stein of


If everyone behaves like Fonzie nobody gets hurt. Having taken a day off work to stand against the fascism of Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir in Umm-el-Fahm, this was my hope against hope. Our bus was cheered as it arrived in town, our gesture of solidarity appreciated by the town’s men-folk (for it was, mostly, men-folk), the gentle claps of a cricket match rather than the whoops of a street-battle, perhaps a sign of how strange we all seemed to the town’s residents, or perhaps – I thought – a signal of the peaceful opposition that was to follow. The bus was organised by Peace Now, but there were also members of Meretz and Hadash there, everyone in bed together for the day, although Labour members were notable in their absence, no doubt getting ready for the big vote to decide whether or not to enter the government later this evening.

As we came down the hill with our banners and our sloganeering (“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”, “Fascism won’t pass”), I became aware of a clear division among the protesters already in place. On one side Israeli-Arab men, some with Palestinian flags, many in keffiyehs, pastiches of their counterparts in the territories or abroad. On the other side Jews and Arabs, Zionists and anti-Zionists and non-Zionists, earnestly shouting the shouts of peace, holding banners up high. This was the welcome the 100 far-rightists could expect.

If fascists marched through my parents’ neighbourhood in London, I’d expect that non-Jews would oppose them. This is why I came to Umm-el-Fahm. I try to be a libertarian, and I think the Supreme Court took the correct decision in permitting the march, but in doing so it also implicitly gave people the right to stand in opposition, and this is the reason I came. Baruch Marzel thinks he’s oh-so-clever, asking what’s wrong with him marching through sovereign Israeli territory with the sovereign Israeli flag. Needless to say, he won’t be taking a similar march through Mea Sharim, another place known for its ambivalence bordering on antipathy for Zionism.

I have little time for the Balad-style nationalism or Islamism that some people suggest is dominant in Umm-el-Fahm. But I’m aware of the context. Having visited the city I found that our government has done precious little to win hearts and minds in places like this, and that only when I am confident we are doing everything we can to fully integrate Israeli-Arabs into the broader polity will I feel comfortable chastising Israeli-Arabs when they demonstrate hostility against the state. By standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Umm-el-Fahm, then, I hoped to show Marzel and his clique that they were hopelessly outnumbered and that Israeli-Arabs could count on Jewish support when threatened by fascism.

We arrived at 8:45; the march was scheduled to kick off at 9:30. We stood around in the steadily increasing rain, the border police looking on, everyone ready to play their part in the pantomime. The march was only permitted on the minor roads of the town, but nobody seemed to know what the final route would be, or if the demonstrators would even march past the main rump of the counter-protest. I ducked into a restaurant to buy some cashews, unsurprised to see it defy the municipal calls for a general strike. “This is great for business,” I joked to the owner. “You should ask Marzel to come back every week!” “If only,” he replied with a wink.

Now the rain was really beating down fast, emboldening everybody, as if they had never seen water fall from the sky before. A heavy shudder of thunder got everyone jumping like the beat dropping at a rave; anticipation was suddenly on everyone’s faces. But still no sign of Marzel. By now it was clear that he wouldn’t be coming round our way; people began hitching lifts up the hill to seek him out, but I only realised this was happening before it was too late. That’s right; I came all the way to Umm-el-Fahm to oppose fascism and didn’t even manage to find one of the fascists, apart from maybe two Neturei Karta members with predictable provocations about Zionism on their banners.

There was some trouble at our end though; a couple of people arrested, the tensions ratcheted up a notch or two, teenagers running off up the hill as if on a mission. Later I found out that there had been 28 injuries, mainly policemen, plus a Meretz MK who I had earlier seen smoking a cigarette, like Fonzie, enjoying the attention of the crowd. The best response to the provocative march would have been to stand loudly but peacefully in opposition, to avoid the temptation to spill over into low-level violence, to set an example that others might follow. The divisions between Jew and Arab in this country – not to mention the divisions among members of the Israeli left – meant this wasn’t possible. Fonzie’s dictum wasn’t followed, and I once again left a political gathering in disappointment, this time unsure whether to return, frankly no longer seeing the point of it all.