Yesterday's March against Antisemitism in London (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty)

November 27, 2023   4 mins

“An innocent child who was lost has now been found and returned,” was how the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, greeted the news of nine-year-old Emily Hand being released from her Hamas hellhole. He made it sound like the poor girl had been temporarily separated from her family during a busy shopping day at Brent Cross. This was the child whose father was so tortured by the thought of her being kidnapped by wicked men that he confessed he loved her so much he hoped that she was dead.

“Keep waving,” said the Hamas terrorists, handing over another little girl to the Red Cross on Friday night. As she waved back nervously — they still have seven of her family locked up, so of course she did — the Hamas PR machine must have been punching the air in delight. This is the narrative they are trying to sell you: Hamas are just misunderstood humanitarians — or, at least, principled freedom fighters pushing back against years of colonial oppression. We treat our captives well, they say. Not kidnapped, just lost.

How is it that some people fall for all this manipulative rubbish? There have been posters of these children ripped down all over London and New York by Hamas apologists, gleeful fools who seem to think it’s a lie that children were ever taken in the first place. It’s like watching Holocaust denial develop in real time. Antisemitism doesn’t just rot the soul; it rots the brain.

Admittedly, facing the truth is often impossibly demanding, especially when the truth is as distressing as this is. I thought I was mentally prepared for Bearing Witness, the IDF’s 47-minute compilation of footage taken on October 7, which I saw last week at a private screening. But my body clearly wasn’t. Ten minutes in, I started to shake. The organisers had prepared the audience as best they could and explained there was no shame in having to leave. And there was a point where I was close.

Some of the footage came from Hamas bodycams, some from their mobile phones, some from CCTV, some from first responders. All of it was horrific. Later, after a number of medicinal whiskies, I did manage to sleep. But I woke early. And in the small hours, there was little protection from all those images: the beheadings, the children crying out for “abba” as their father was murdered before their eyes, the sheer joy with which Hamas hunted down and slaughtered their victims, the lifeless bodies of children in their Mickey Mouse pyjamas, the contortions of the dying, the endless pools of blood.

All lies, say Hamas’s useful idiots. Why else, they say, would this IDF production be shown only to a select group of sympathetic (a.k.a. gullible) journalists and opinion-formers. In that case, I’m not sure how obsessive Israel-hater Owen Jones made it onto the IDF guest list. The gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell also sat behind me. He’s no establishment patsy by a long chalk.

Then, yesterday afternoon, more than 100,000 of us marched through central London. This too was bearing witness — it was not a digital social media battle but these were real people, with real worries. It was the largest and most significant assertion of support for British Jewry since the fascists were pushed back by a similar number of indignant cockneys at the Battle of Cable Street on another Sunday afternoon in 1936. A few yards in front of me, Tommy Robinson, a latter-day Blackshirt, was forcibly ejected from the march to everyone’s approval. Nasty little man.

The atmosphere was mostly sombre, with grey skies and a little gentle rain reflecting the mood. A few reserved chants of “Bring them home!” broke out as we marched up towards Parliament, but mostly it was reassuringly free of drama, still less any sort of threat. No one wore a mask. These did not feel like people who were used to going on demonstrations. “First time I have been on one since the Sixties,” said the rather glamorous octogenarian sitting beside me on the Tube. These are the “moderate people” that actor Eddie Marsan had urged in his speech “to stand up and face down extremism and bigotry and antisemitism and islamophobia and all forms of racism”. It was pretty distressing that it took so many police to protect so many peaceful people. But they needed to be there.

The news broke that four-year-old Avigail Eden was being released as the march reached Parliament Square. Avigail was orphaned on October 7, then kidnapped from Kfar Aza. She was held in Hamas’s tunnels for 50 days, where she had her fourth birthday. I cannot imagine she would have been liberated so soon without the Israeli army invading Gaza. Previous hostages have been held for years.

The news cycle moves so quickly that it’s easy to forget the overwhelming tectonic significance of what happened to Israel on October 7. Horror, shock and grief take far longer to process than news. But Israelis tell me that their world will never be the same again. It is certainly clear that the old rules have not worked. And no one knows whether two states will emerge, or whether there will be a death spiral, with apocalyptic and unknown consequences. Watching Bearing Witness, it felt like those Hamas 20-somethings, on their orgy of killing, were surprised that they had got through the fence and had the opportunity to do what they did. I don’t think they were quite prepared for it. And I still don’t think anyone is prepared for what is yet to come.

When this current cycle of hostage exchange is completed, the war will resume. Israel will not rest until Hamas is thoroughly defeated. It is a tragedy of the highest order that thousands of Palestinians will die as Hamas hides behind them. But watching Bearing Witness made me realise that the current war is so deeply existential for Israelis that there can be no going back to the old order. No more “mowing the lawn” of Palestinian discontent.

“Never again is now,” read posters on the march. It is like all the furies and demons of the Holocaust broke through a portal in history, through that wire fence from Gaza into Israel, and into the present. “Never again is now” is to say that, this time, the resistance to evil will be deafening. So don’t let a temporary ceasefire fool you. The horror is far from over.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.