November 22, 2019

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Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, so much love, so much hate

21 July 2018. Saturday morning, 5am and I am on my way to spend the weekend at the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival. I don’t get to choose these dates, and my wife is none too happy about me missing her birthday.  Three years ago, Bournemouth Action for Israel had a stall at the Tolpuddle event. On the Saturday they faced some poisonous verbal abuse. When they turned up for the Sunday, they were told it was advisable to leave as ‘their safety’ could not be guaranteed. They’ve been denied a presence ever since.

I wonder how Tolpuddle reconciles the contradiction between the core history upon which the event was built – the 1834 arrest, on trumped up charges, of a group of workers uniting to strike – with the organisers failing to protect the rights of a group of Zionists who were there to defend themselves from people making wild accusations against them.

Silencing those Zionist voices, denying the right to free speech and bowing down to intimidation from those who hold power, is EXACTLY what the Tolpuddle festival is meant to oppose. Instead, like most of what is happening on the left these days, the movement itself has become a corrupted and perverse inversion of it’s own core value system.

This weekend those Zionists are returning. They are going to stand with banners, flags and leaflets as the march walks past. For my research into antisemitism inside the Labour camp, I could not miss this opportunity.

Here is what happened:

Tolpuddle the positive

The festival itself was fascinating. So many of the things I appreciate, like history, English villages, tradition, the countryside, festivals, all combined to ensure this was on the face of it, an enjoyable occasion. The people walking around on the Saturday were, in the vast majority, really decent people. They were there to enjoy themselves, to express their political affiliation, to enjoy the celebration in the sunshine and to remember the martyrs of Tolpuddle.

This side of the fight against antisemitism must not be forgotten. The majority of Labour supporters are engaged because of inequality and injustice inside our own borders. In many ways telling a Labour voter not to vote for Corbyn can be seen as an attempt to deprive them of their right to vote. For a socialist who believes the Tories are a party who use the poor to make the rich even more wealthy, these people feel they have nobody else to vote for.

So walking around this event, which was a camping field with a large section set-aside for stalls, stands, stages and tents for display tables, was enjoyable. The sun was shining (note to self: next time – bring a hat), whole families had come to have fun, it was as relaxed as an English village should be, and importantly, because of the nature of the festival, food and drinks were reasonably priced.

Antisemitism in the undergrowth

Then there is the sinister side of Tolpuddle. The movements that these people align with, are being hijacked. As I arrived, I saw a few Palestinian flags, flying in the campsite.

tolpuddle campsite

There were dozens of stands, many of unions, some of political movements. Several (like War on Want, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Medical Aid for Palestinians) were pushing the ‘destroy Israel’ narrative. Almost everywhere that it would be legitimate to carry an international cause, the only one visible was ‘Palestine’. In the bookshop, the only books on the conflict were from anti-Israel activists and propagandists like Ben White and Ilan Pappe:


The Zionist voice is not present at all. Anywhere.

Desensitised Labour members

Tolpuddle is not a ‘Labour Party’ event, even though the vast majority of those walking around are clearly Labour voters. The Communist Party have a stall too. They have an ‘international bulletin’ on display, the subject – ‘Palestine’:


Walking around, looking at the stalls, there was anti-Zionist imagery everywhere. This was one of the badges on sale:

swastika sat tolpuddle

An image of the Star of David with a swastika inside. A disgraceful image that should ‘trigger’ anyone that sees it.  Can you imagine a badge carrying such an insult to Muslims or black people? How many people would such a badge ‘trigger’ during the day? This antisemitic imagery was on sale for the whole event and seemed to disturb nobody but me. That desensitisation, an environment in which decent people no longer see a glaring example of one particular type of racism, is at the heart of our battle with the Corbyn faction of the Labour Party.

This was another badge on sale:

inciting violence at Tolpuddle

Here is a shining example of the ‘peaceful’ Palestine movement. A ‘victory to the Palestinians’ badge, with a gun as the central symbol. A call for Jewish Genocide is on sale at Tolpuddle. Again, nobody seems to mind. This is the stall selling them:

tolpuddle badges

Put the two badges together and you can see the message being spread without opposition at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival – ‘the Jews are Nazis and the only way to defeat them is the gun‘.

Welcome conversations

The event gave plenty of opportunity for discussion. Jonathan Hoffman had come to Tolpuddle to hand out leaflets that mentioned union co-operation between Israel and the Palestinians. In a few hours he had given 500 of these leaflets out to people walking past. I watched several of the conversations. Jonathan did well and the vast majority where positive and engaging. A few pockets of hostility were visible. One man walked passed and said Jonathan ‘must be in the pay of the Mossad’. A few said ‘free Palestine’, ‘end Apartheid’ or called Jonathan a ‘racist’.

Yet for the most part, Jonathan was able to talk, to engage and to explain to a crowd that seemed truly interested. Then after lunch it suddenly turned nasty.

Hate and ignorance

A women who had cordially spoken to Jonathan in the morning, returned to where he was standing.  ‘I am so angry‘, she yelled. She had just ‘learnt’ from ‘a friend’, what Israel ‘did to the Palestinians’ the day before. Apparently ‘Hundreds had been killed’. It wasn’t true. In fact, four were, in an Israeli response to the killing of an Israeli soldier from sniper fire. Yet this is how the lies are spread. This women believed there had been a massacre and began to vent her anger against Jonathan. As her shouting continued, others joined and soon there was a small crowd of anti-Israel activists surrounding him. My own feeling was that this has been co-ordinated between them.

In such an environment, it is impossible to counter every claim, answer each question with the time necessary, and confusion reigns as a question about one event becomes mixed-up with another. The anger and hate are mixed in with the lies. It became heated and security needed to calm down and move on those who were visibly intimidating. In the short exchange, several lies were aired: That hundreds of people had been massacred the night before, that Israel used dumdum bullets against unarmed civilians (they don’t use them at all), that Arabs cannot join the Israeli Union body the Histadrut (at its peak, there were 170,000 Arab members) and that the Histadrut is the body that buys and sells land (I think the activist confused the Histadrut with the JNF). There were too many distortions and lies in that short exchange to list them all.

Unchallenged lies

This is the ignorance that spreads unchallenged in Labour circles because radical activists have shut down the Zionist voice. In the end, as it always does, the anti-Israel activist focuses on one event, that in this case was the tragic death of a medic, and having led the entire argument down a classic ‘rabbit hole’, that medic’s death somehow proves that everything else they are saying is right.

I went after the woman who started the exchange. She had said Jonathan should be kicked out and had no place at the event.  She was wearing a t-shirt that suggests she is a member of Bristol’s Socialist Choir. When I caught up with her, I asked her where she got the news from. In the video is just the start of the attack on Jonathan and the final exchange with me (I was stopped from asking further questions by the security):

This woman, who started the entire confrontation with lies about massacres of hundreds of people, suggests the BBC lie about it and cover it up because of Israeli power.

Pockets of hate

These pockets of hate are the one that Jeremy Corbyn refuses to deal with. They are empowered by the silencing of the Zionist voice, the stand-off over Jew-hatred and we have to counter them if we are to fight against the antisemitic attitudes they bring with them. They breed and multiply on ignorance and prejudice. These pockets, were far more visible on the Sunday, when the march took place. Some of those who were to take part in the demonstration walked through the event. One was physically threatened, others just intimidated and insulted. Here is a video of one short exchange.

By 13:00 the Jewish activists had gathered towards the end point of the march. Intending to make a visible statement about, British, Israeli trade union cooperation and activity:

The majority of the thousands of people walked past peacefully. Some engaged, displaying interest and taking leaflets. A minority however did not. As they passed there were some who simply made rude gestures or shouted comments against Israel. A few became aggressive and had to be moved on. It was during the march that the minority status of these people became evident. As an anti-Israel group passed, and they started up a chant, it never carried beyond their particular circle. One man tried to sing ‘from the river to the sea’, but clearly didn’t know the words and gave up.

The demonstration remained peaceful because the Tolpuddle security protected the Jews. Throughout the weekend, their behaviour had been exemplary. They protected Jonathan’s right to hand out leaflets, moved on those who threatened him and did the same during the Sunday March. There were clearly some who encountered the pro-Israeli demonstration who wanted to take further physical action – they were not allowed to. Because of the dynamics of the march (everyone kept walking), confrontations diffused quickly.

Understanding the problem

My take home here is a simple one. We don’t just have to oppose antisemitism in Labour, we have to find a way to engage normal Labour members who are being brainwashed. On the one hand there is no Zionist message heard, on the other they are being fed with antisemitic propaganda. In the pub on the Sunday before the march, Jonathan and I engaged a couple of Labour voters who had suddenly started talking about ‘Palestine’.  The exchange of views was healthy and informative. These people should not be ‘our enemy’. Suddenly in the middle of a detailed discussion, the man regurgitates the ‘Khazar myth‘.

We spoke about this, he accepts his information is only coming from one side and he’d like to hear opposing voices. Except of course he cannot. The fascist left in Labour will not allow him to. They have created an environment where ‘Israel = extreme right’ and removed all pro-Israel discussion from the room. All that is left is poison. And as with the anti-Trump demonstration the week before, these movements are hijacking Labour to push ideologies far removed from traditional left wing values.

As part of that strategy it is vital to create the ‘good-Jew, Bad Jew’ situation, which misrepresents Zionism and overstates Jewish opposition to it. To this end, Jewish Voice for Labour and Jews for Justice for Palestinians (the same handful of people of course) were there to spread that message:


In the end the weekend was important for me because it highlights how effective the silencing of the Zionist voice has been in allowing the spread of antisemitism in the Labour undergrowth. Everyone I spoke to displayed deep ignorance AND pushed the line that Jewish opinion on Israel is divided. As if it is 50/50. Each and every Labour member has been armed with JVL and Jewish anti-Zionist opinion. As if this is a moderate, rather than extreme-left opinion.

One only has to look at the current strikes in Israel to understand that unions and activism are part and parcel of Israeli life. Of all the nations in the Middle East, an event like Tolpuddle could only happen in Israel. We shouldn’t expect Labour voters to identify with the policies of Likud or Jewish Home, but that isn’t Israel. Politically these people should be informed that Israel is the only society in the entire region that their own views could freely be aired. A place where ideologies related to inequality are challenged and freedoms flourish. That Israel wants peace and has a right to defend it’s borders.

This for example was the one untitled, unidentifiable piece of pro-Israel information available at the festival:

In the Unite tent, there was a poster displaying global sexual orientation laws. Only one country in the Middle East stood out – Israel. The only nation in the world, that cannot have ANY VOICE at the festival. The left in Israel should be embraced by Labour. Instead, the Corbyn faction has built a wall that excludes all Zionists. That denies Israel any type of voice or defence. That seeks to protect the intolerant and deny the presence of those who want collaboration and dialogue.

This is a party gripped in the middle of an antisemitism crisis. One that will not go away. Yet in the posters around the event that speak of racism:

Islamophobia and anti-black racism is present in the poster, antisemitism doesn’t get a look-in. These people are being told the antisemitism crisis is a plot to bring down Corbyn. They are building that wall higher and creating a divide between ordinary Labour Party members and the Jewish community. And when Corbyn finally got to speak at Tolpuddle all he could do was ask his own MPs to delay any conversation on the subject. That’s the Corbyn way, masterful inactivity, all whilst Jews are silenced and those that hate them get a free pass to spread antisemitism everywhere that Labour Members meet. Places like Tolpuddle.

Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. - Karl Popper.



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