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Don’t let the Government shut down pro-Palestine protests

The principle of the freedom to protest must always stand separate from the content of that protest. Credit: Getty

May 20, 2024 - 7:00am

Along with tourists outside Buckingham Palace and traffic jams, pro-Palestine marches have become a mainstay of London weekends. But direct action hasn’t been limited to the capital city — protests, boycotts and stunts in the name of anti-Israel campaigns have included taking over university buildings, releasing rats in fast-food chains, spray-painting buildings and shutting down Israel-related events up and down the country.

Critics of these protests argue that open antisemitism has been given a free pass by organisers or attendees willing to turn a blind eye — or even encouraged by a not-so-minority view in support of Hamas and Islamism.

What to do? Police officers seem incapable of handling these protests without scandal. Indeed, they have threatened to arrest what they call “openly Jewish” people and those holding “Hamas is terrorist” signs, while seeming to chin-scratch and split hairs over whether “jihad” is a call to violence. Perhaps understandably, many want Something To Be Done. After all, when there is an accusation of any other type of prejudice — racism in the police, sexism in Parliament, Islamophobia in schools — there is an expectation that everyone should rally to the defence of those under attack.

The Government’s answer to all of this is to threaten to institute yet another law clamping down on public protest. Rumours in Westminster suggest that the Conservatives want to amend the Public Order Act to allow “processions to be banned and public assemblies to be restricted”. Preempting the upcoming report by Lord Walney on political violence and disruption, rumours suggest that the Government is considering following one recommendation to create a new legal classification to stop groups which “interfere with the rights of others”. Much like the “how noisy is a too noisy protest” question of the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, this vague notion of interfering leaves a lot of room for draconian crackdowns.

The antisemitism on display in large quantities on some of these marches is stomach-churning — but it should not be banned. We cannot allow a trigger-happy state to squash the freedom of citizens to voice unpopular or even uncivilised views. Those who hold placards with antisemitic tropes, or celebrate the rape and murder of the 7 October pogrom as a win for Palestinian sovereignty, will not have their minds changed by being hauled off to the cells. By engaging in a narcissistic attempt to win votes in the run-up to the election, the Government’s flirtation with further censorship risks making free-speech martyrs out of those who have no respect for freedom themselves.

The principle of the freedom to protest — to make your voice heard in the public square — must always stand separate from the content of that protest. Some views will always be appalling — history shows us that the scourge of antisemitism has long and deep roots. Others are less black and white. In giving the state the power to crush dissent in the name of safety or protection, we give up our ability to demand change. Freedom of speech is sometimes painful to hear and sometimes painful to argue for — but it must always reign supreme.


Ella Whelan is a freelance journalist, commentator and author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

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Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago

Separating the content of the protest is a perfect reason to shut the protests down. Just because these people are monomaniacs who want to devote every weekend to a single issue, the rest of us don’t have to. They have had plenty of freedom to protest, the time has come to say that we have heard them and now want the streets back. There is an election soon, let them stand and if they win they can run government policy. For now, they have said pretty much everything there is to say about the issue, time to get off the pot as the issue is closed.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

I’m pro-Israeli, but your claim that “the issue is closed” is clearly wrong. Israel has a right to defend itself by rooting out Hamas, but as long as the campaign to do so continues in Gaza, the pot will boil.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I mean the issue of UK government policy is closed, there is no new information that the protests can bring to the situation that will change the behaviour of the UK government. It is irrelevant whether the conflict is ongoing, or stopping, or whether the UK government is right or wrong, or whether Israel is right or wrong. Since protest can achieve nothing, it should be stopped. The protestors are very welcome to stand for election and change the UK government policy that way, and we are entitled to stop paying police overtime and get the streets back.
Protestors: we have heard you, and we want to ignore you.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

The protest cause has always appeared to be the promotion of terrorism because Hamas was elected, and then supported, as a proxy for terrorist action against Israel. In that sense, these protests continue to be relevant in expressing support for terrorist action, regarding which the relevant anti-terror laws should be applied.

Jae
Jae
1 month ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

The whole point is if they win, that is Labour, you will be silenced.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 month ago

What utter guff. There is a very clear difference between lawful peaceful protest and intimidatory aggressive protest that wilfully harms or threatens the public and oublic order. The Met and the Progressive State ARE operating a nasty two tier policy of appeasing both the eco nuts who block highways and large non white (BLM/Gaza) marches whose numbers are so big they are obliged to back off. They have tactitly conceded the latent aggression and menace of the pro Gazan mobs. Open Jews are they say in peril just for attempting to cross a street; just for being a British Jew. Pathetic.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this article seems to imply that all these actions are to be accepted as the “price of protest”:
“taking over university buildings, releasing rats in fast-food chains, spray-painting buildings and shutting down Israel-related events up and down the country”
Am I alone in noticing that many (perhaps all) of these are already criminal acts ?
We do not need any new laws. The ones we have are quite adequate. Just enforce them !!!
And please, let’s stop pretending that there’s some master “right to protest” that overrides the duty of invididuals to respect the laws of the land and not go round inflicting costs and damage on the rest of the country.
None of these “protests” actually need to break laws and cause criminal damage – the US Civil Rights protests managed not to do this.
Just prosecute all the criminal attention seekers who are posing as “protestors”.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Spot on.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

I’m a great believer in free speech so I agree that protests should not be banned as a matter of routine.
However free speech is constrained by laws… incitement of immediate violence, libel etc. And protest ‘add-on’ activities which involve personal or criminal damage are illegal and should be policed robustly.
The necessary laws already exist, we need no more. What we do want is for the Police ‘service’ to ensure they are observed, even if it means ‘only’ arresting a few key law breaking protestors for every protest, for any ’cause’. And magistrates and the legal system to follow through.

El Uro
El Uro
1 month ago

I wonder what the author of this article would write if Röhm’s Sturmabteilung (stormtroopers) took to the streets.
.
For too many freedom advocates, adherence to principles is more important than freedom itself. I don’t really understand what is more here, naivety or stupidity. Either way, these chickens would make a great roast.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago

Freedom to protest must indeed always reign supreme, otherwise you cease to remain a democracy.
Having said that we cannot allow a minority to take over our city centres weekend after weekend so denying the majority.
The Police must be seen to impose order under the law, fairly and without discrimination.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

No it must not.
The idea that one particular manifestation must override all others is absurd.
Rule of law must reign supreme. This is the one thing that underpins a free society and guarantees are valued freedoms.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

hmm, not sure you read my comment fully?
” The Police must be seen to impose order under the law, fairly and without discrimination.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

I did:
“Freedom to protest must indeed always reign supreme, otherwise you cease to remain a democracy.”
An unqualified statement I fundamentally disagree with for the reasons I gave.

Paul T
Paul T
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

Sorry but which “manifestation” is it that is seeking to override all others? Bit confused.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago

If the protests are organised beforehand and stick to designated routes (as I believe is the case) then they should be allowed to continue. Any criminal activity should be punished but nobody should ever be banned from protesting irrespective of whether we agree with their aims or not.
Too many supposed free speech advocates have become as censorious as the woke when it’s “the other side” saying things they don’t approve of

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago

Your para.1 directly contradicts para.2!

O'Driscoll
O'Driscoll
1 month ago

I agree that protestors should be allowed to protest. But there is a cost. The cost of the incessant anti-Israel marches runs into millions of pounds and a huge proportion of the Met’s policing capabilities. There is also the sad fact that the centre of London has become a no-go zone for the rest of us who want to go about their business, particularly if you are upset by either the aggression of the protestor’s tone, or their incredible ignorance.

My solution would be to set a test for all the protestors; if they can;t show even basic understanding of the issues they are marching for, they should be sent home and told to read a book. Once they have some basic knowledge of the subject, there should be a lottery like there is for the London Marathon, and only a manageable amount of people (and a number that can be safely ignored by the majority of the public) should be given a permit to march.

As for those who block traffic, or set rats free in restaurants, they should be prepared to pay the price of their conviction. A hefty jail sentence would be a badge of honour that I would be proud to wear if I was as convinced at they are that everyone else is evil and I am not. I’m sure Greta would embrace a spell inside.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  O'Driscoll

There is no conceivable circumstance I can think of where setting rats free in restaurants is a valid form of protest. It’s just delibeate criminal activity.
As I noted earlier, the US Civil Rights movement didn’t need to do this sort of thing. There’s responsible protest which may enjoy some public support. And then there’s deliberate criminal activity and desperate attention seeking. Most of us can tell the difference. Even if the police don’t seem to be able to.

O'Driscoll
O'Driscoll
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

I agree, which is why I said they should face a hefty jail sentence if they set rats free in restaurants.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  O'Driscoll

There’s a slight difference:
You seem to be saying that it’s ok for them to release rats in restaurants provided they accept the legal consequences. i.e. Law breaking can be socially acceptable.
I’m saying it should never be permitted *in this particular case*. i.e. some law breaking is fundamentally wrong. In this case, deliberately endangering public health. There is clear criminal intent and public damage in this case.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  O'Driscoll

..hopefully after a trial in a court of law.. or do you advocatevthe Israeli solution of ‘judicial detention’ (kidnapping, hostage taking) followed by torture and starvation?

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  O'Driscoll

Disrupting traffic is the NORM in every major protest.. always has been, always will. The usual solution is to meet at least some of the demands of the protesters commensurate with the size, frequency, tenacity etc of such protests. The technical term for this approach is ‘democracy’!

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Protesting has nothing to do with democracy.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
1 month ago

The issues under discussion so far have been freedom of speech, the right to protest, the limits on disturbance to others, the need to obey the law, the duty of the police to enforce the law and to do so even-handedly.
 
All perfectly proper to liberal-democratic sensibilities.
 
But what is really going on here? In my opinion – exploiting the anxiety of our democratic society about curtailing free speech – what the protesters are actually doing is mounting an impressive repeated show of force.
 
Their message to us: ‘Get used to it, we’re here, and sooner or later, in every aspect of the national life, we’re going to get our way.’

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

If they are university students and representative the vast majority then yes, of course, they will eventually have their way since they will governance aspects of society when you teactionaries have gone the way of the dodos!

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

If.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

They aren’t. You mistake your weird pro-Islamist / woke (it can’t actually logically be both, but still…..) beliefs with the position of the majority of British people, which they simply are not.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
1 month ago

No, they shouldn’t as they are the most pertinent expression of British multiculturalism. As are the police- who says progress hasn’t been made since George Floyd?

Louise Henson
Louise Henson
1 month ago

The antisemitism on display in large quantities on some of these marches is stomach-churning — but it should not be banned.”
On the day when ‘Islamaphobia’ can be freely expressed on the streets of Britain, and the protesters protected from being murdered by the ‘victims’, I’ll agree with you.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Louise Henson

Exactly ! It seems to be all one way traffic at the moment. The Islamofascists are laughing all the way to the chopping block!

Jae
Jae
1 month ago

What you’re seeing is the way Islam and other nefarious forces (they exist everywhere, Canada, Scotland, Ireland) is working to get rid of free speech. We are willingly falling into their trap.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Jae

Rubbish. Islam is a greater force for peace than so-called (clearly the diametric opposite to) Christian nations. The UK, US, France, Germany, Italy and a host of other Christian nations havebeen responsible for 90% of all wars, death, suffering, colonisation, enslavement, genocide and ethnic cleansing throughout the world girthrlsst 300 years! ..a mere 10% of humans responsible for 90% of human misery!

Ian_S
Ian_S
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Hoo boy. What “Christian nations”? There are none. You make stuff up to addle your own mind. The only religious states are Islamic. Even Israel is a secular democracy. But no point me telling you. You’re clearly some kind of extremist.

Dr E C
Dr E C
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Can I see some data on that please?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Utter garbage! Actually the vast majority of Muslims are maltreated and slaughtered (and indeed have always been) by other Muslims.

You obviously know absolutely nothing the brutal Muslim conquest of Northern India, the Mongol conquests, not to mention the huge scale of killing and destruction in Chinese history, to make your ludicrous claim. Your ignorance of any other form of history than modish Western progressivism, and the denial of agency of any other peoples or cultures, shows a cultural condescension – perhaps we might even call it even racism – of your own.

Whether or not European colonialism was any more “wrong” then any other conquest or invasion or war in history, it was not in the most part combined with mass slaughter, though the personal empire of Leopold of Belgium was indeed very brutal. In the conquest of the Americas, many millions of Native Americans did perish over a period of decades, but overwhelmingly in response to disease which was not even understood at the time. The same single massacre, at Amritsar in 1919, is constantly trotted out with reference to the history of the British Raj.

Jae
Jae
1 month ago

They aren’t “Pro-Palestine” protests. They are Pro-Hamas. The majority of people there are Islamists who’ve never assimilated to England’s culture or laws and want Israel annihilated. The rest are ignorant but useful tools for those Islamists who want Israel annihilated.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Jae

Not borne out by the facts I’m afraid.. You confuse Islamist with Muslim, and majority withtiny minority. Most vivilizedpeople want Israel (the colonising, genocidal, ethnic cleaning state: mot the people) to cease to exist. Only genocidal nations, aidin and abetting the slaughter of innocent women and children think otherwise.

Ian_S
Ian_S
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Do you pay your own subscription here, or does your Trotskyist agitprop committee pay for it?

Derek Smith
Derek Smith
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Hamas needs to end up like the Tamil Tigers.

Dr E C
Dr E C
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

No, most ‘vivilized’ people want Israel to win. Including lots of Arab people.
‘The Arab World does not believe Hamas’ lies’: https://youtu.be/NN6S6GUlrJU?si=JSzQJsTPOJER4OKz

Paul
Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

This amounts to claiming that “most civilized people” support a genocidal struggle against Israeli Jews. Does this view now pass for wisdom in Ireland?

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

The answer is to arrest them all and deport as many as possible.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  William Shaw

No flogging or hangings then or burnings at the stake? ..ah, yer too soft!

Ian_S
Ian_S
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Step 1. Someone comments. Step 2. Liam O’Mahoney replies with extremist bonkers-overdrive drivel. It’s kind of like, you’re the comment board stalker, and mad as a cut snake.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

The principle of the freedom to protest — to make your voice heard in the public square — must always stand separate from the content of that protest.
—> Actually, no; the content is the defining feature of the protest. If you want to stand or march with a few signs and whatever, have at it. But when you decide to block traffic or occupy and destroy someone else’s property or harass passers-by, you have forfeited any right because because you are now infringing on the rights of others.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Protests have ALWAYS disrupted traffic.. theater allegations you make ars false as borne out by the very few prosecutions. I think your facist side is leaking out?

Dr E C
Dr E C
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Learn to spell properly, then get back to us.

Paul T
Paul T
1 month ago

Fine, don’t ban the protests. However after a reasonable amount of freedom has been exercised it becomes mischief. That mischief needs to be paid for. The protesters should continue to be free to protest but they should pay for the costs associated with the continual disruption they seek to impose on the rest of society. They would still have the freedom to protest of course, so long as they accept that society is eventually free to issue them a bill for their mischief.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul T

So the freedom to protest will no longer be free then? ..the fact you term it mischief is telling.. I can only suggest you looku up the term ‘facist’ so you can see the error of your ways..
You sound like you’d be more at home in an authoritarian, police state.. can I suggest Israel, the US, Canada or even The PRC? I think you’d find Russia a bit too liberal for you taste..

Paul T
Paul T
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

Freedoms, not being absolute, come with responsibilities which you elide. Freedom does not mean literally free of charge. There is a cost to these protests which society is forced to meet. Therefore society can expect those financial, and societal, costs to be put back to those who feel entitled to force their views and costs onto others.

R S Foster
R S Foster
1 month ago

…the protests should be allowed to continue. But the law against issuing threats should be enforced with uncompromising rigour as soon as ANY Anti-Semitic Abuse is heard…because with vastly more supporters of Islamist Terrorism in London than British Jews, all the Jewish people in the City are indeed being threatened by these weekly festivals of anti-Semitic hatred, organised by the cheerleaders and fan-boys of the vile and murderous Genocidaires of Hamas… (let’s not forget that only one in four “British” Muslims actually believe the horrors of October 7th happened at all, and pretty much every other one would like Sharia Law imposed here…presumably by force)
…and by “uncompromising rigour”…I mean Riot Police in full kit, ready to wade in and beat Ahmed and Layla…or indeed Tarquin and Poppy…bloody and senseless at the slighest provocation. Certainly backed by Anti-Terrorist Units, fully armed…and with the Army on standby, should they be required…
…immediately followed by expulsion for anyone ANYONE who is not a British Passport Holder…and charges of incitement to murder against anyone who is…which can attract a life sentence. And should.

Liam O'Mahony
Liam O'Mahony
1 month ago
Reply to  R S Foster

You sound like you’d be more at home in Naz¡ Germany than libertarian Britain.. or next best thing, Zionistoccupied Pakestibe where you can give full vent to your vicious, brutal final solution.

Ian_S
Ian_S
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

So when you say he’s a N*zi, so he’d be more at home in “Pakistibe” (lol), you obviously agree then that Hamas is a f*scist organization. Finally, some sense. And here I was thinking you were more brainwashed than a CIA mind-control experiment.

Paul T
Paul T
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

You sound like you are at home touching yourself.

Dr E C
Dr E C
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam O'Mahony

I’m tired of the Nazi label being used to besmirch Israel when the Palestinian liberation movement started as an actual Nazi project under the Grand Mufti Husseini.

Michael Askew
Michael Askew
1 month ago

Freedom of speech has certain agreed exceptions – incitement to violence (common in Palestinian protests), shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, slander, and divulging state secrets. The problem is that the police ignore “Death to the Jews!” chants, and arrest people who protest Hamas atrocities or look Jewish if they apeear near to a pro-Palestinian march.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
1 month ago

Is equal treatment under the law an unreasonable expectation?
Apparently it is. The West is smoldering.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

First, learn the difference between free speech and guerrilla warfare, then write your column.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

These people are the wests Fifth Column … Palestinians are nothing to do with us. The came for the Saturday people first then it will be us, the Sunday people.

Ryan K
Ryan K
24 days ago

I am very heartened by the many comments I see here showing solidarity and understanding for the war #15? that Israel has been forced to fight I know what is going on in my country but Britain seems even worse from the news, from the often vile BBC WorldNews America I sometimes watch here. I can’t go back and forth with haters so I stopped reply to quora and reddit. my pro Israel posts on FB go largely ignored …by Jews….and all others with several exceptions. We have our Israel march in NYC coming up….I imagine the few remainng NYC police will all hve to be posted as the hamasniks gear up to do whatever they can to stop the march, disrupt, glue themselves to the pavement, spread red paint around, chant those moronic chants …..hey hey ho ho go fcuk yourselves