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Live from the hate march
From the river to the sea! From the river to the sea! From the river to the sea!
It was Armistice Day last weekend. One hundred and five years ago, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the First World War ended. They’re very pretty, all those upright ones. A good piece of trivia for schoolchildren to learn. But the armistice was actually signed at 5 am that morning, and to get that nice symmetrical figure the war had to keep going for six more pointless hours. The Germans had asked for hostilities to end immediately; they were refused. So shortly afterwards, an American unit tried to cross the Meuse under heavy fire. British artillery corps, reasoning that it would be more expensive to lug their shells home than to simply fire them all now, spent those last six hours unleashing one last hellish barrage up and down the German lines. French soldiers stormed occupied villages, and many of them died. Nearly three thousand men died on the 11th of November, considerably more than on any average day on the Western Front. Most of their graves say that they fell on the 10th instead. Better that than the indignity of dying for no reason, for no objective, for nobody’s advantage, to change nothing, in a war that was already over but still kept on churning, kept chewing through its victims, simply because war is what there was, and it needs no other justification than that. Those six hours were war in its purest form: no politics, just total sourceless hostility. The moment was coming when the people in the other trenches would simply get up and walk home, and to fire a shot at them would be murder—but right up until that moment, you could still get your sport or pleasure from pinching out a stranger’s life. Perform the rites of the White God. There were generals who wanted their last chance at glory; soldiers too. The last man to die was one Private Henry Gunther, an American. A few months previously, he’d been knocked down from sergeant for complaining about conditions on the front; he wanted to get his pips back, and he didn’t have long. Alone, he charged a German machine-gun nest with his bayonet. At first, the gunners tried to shoo him away. But he kept running at them, so in the very last minute of the war they shot him dead. Afterwards, his rank was posthumously restored and his corpse was issued a citation for gallantry in action, along with the Distinguished Service Cross. Maybe the worst thing about war is that sometimes, you really can get exactly what you want.
Obviously, the 11th of November 2023 was a deeply inappropriate day for anyone to demand a ceasefire.
You might be aware that over the past few weeks, the civilised streets of London have been wracked by hate marches. Carnivals of hatred, festivals of hatred, jamborees of hatred; all-singing all-dancing hate extravaganzas. Marchers would come into the centre of London with their friends and family, sometimes their small children, for the purpose of hating. They blocked off roads, filled bridges, briefly commandeered whole swathes of the city to do their hate in. People were worried. Newspapers fretted. Jews were afraid to go to shul. Ahead of last weekend’s gargantuan Armistice Day hate march, the government pressured the Metropolitan Police to ban it entirely, on the basis of the incredible danger this hate march posed to public order and the fabric of society. The hate marchers would inevitably disrupt the official remembrance ceremonies, and probably deface the Cenotaph too. They would leave a bilious yellow residue everywhere they went. We might be a democratic society, but there are limits: there is no room for hate.
I’ll admit it: I had my doubts. I am a fairly prolific hater myself: I hate everything on TV and everyone in the newspapers; I hate your favourite book and frankly I’m not much fond of you either. But this lot struck me as amateurs. All the best hating is done alone, in dark and sweaty rooms, muttering under a curved-over spine. Real hatred should fester inside you like a cyst. You should be pale and scabby and squeeze it, and it should splatter with a small wet sound against the mirror. If you start taking your hatred on a walk, in the daylight, with large groups of other people, you run the very real risk of letting it decay into love. These hate marchers were also, disquietingly, talking a lot about ceasefires. I know, I am fully aware, that there is no thought so glossy that it can’t contain a tiny grain of hate right at its core. If it’s possible to ask someone to marry you with nothing but rancour in your heart, and it is, then it’s also possible to have a hateful ceasefire. But it’s still a bit of a reach. Finally, there was the potential disruption to our national dignities and the insult to our glorious dead. Even if I accepted that the hate marchers wanted to descend on the King as he plonked down this year’s wreath with his big fat fingers, even if the plan really was to trample him and all the other official mourners like a herd of maddened, hateful cattle, there were still a few problems. Firstly, the route chosen for the hate march went absolutely nowhere near the Cenotaph, where the National Service of Remembrance was being held. Secondly, it occurred on an entirely different day.
Like I said, I had my doubts—but I was wrong. I went to the hate march, and what I saw was monstrous. An eruption of dark, deep, ancient hatred, the most ancient hatred, right out of the bowels of the earth. The hate I encountered there: it shocked me.
Not at first, though. I’d said to friends, before the hate march began, that there were a few things I was less willing to forgive after October 7th. I would not hesitate to start (and probably lose) a fight with anyone who tried to lead a rousing chorus of Khaybar Khaybar Ya Yahud. I was not much inclined to hear people making allegiances to the Israeli proxy militia, built to split and delegitimise the Palestinian cause, known as Hamas. But there really didn’t appear to be any of that at all. I couldn’t even see anyone comparing Netanyahu to the Nazis. (This one always seems to make people very antsy, and I’m not sure why. Yes, it’s a hack bit, but that’s the point: every single world leader since 1945 has, at some point, been caricatured with a Hitler moustache. Why should Bibi be the only exception?) In fact, the hate march was surprisingly low-energy. Part of this must have been a function of its sheer size: one of the largest protests in British political history. There were maybe half a million of us, maybe more, crammed into some not particularly wide streets. Five thousand people are a potentially excitable mob; five hundred thousand are just the British public, vast and slow-moving. We were packed too tight for any real chaos. More of a hate shuffle, really. But I don’t think it was only the size. Halfway down Park Lane, a girl yelled into her megaphone: What do we want? But nobody chanted an answer; the yell was just followed by a few seconds of embarrassed silence. What did we want? I think most people there wanted the exact same thing that I did. We wanted to know that in the end, when all the records are totted up, by God or whoever else it might be, they will not say that we did nothing as tens of thousands of people in Gaza were burned alive in their homes. We didn’t just post about it online. We went on a walk about it. We performed some kind of physical act. It’s about as close to nothing as you can get, but what else is there to do? I don’t think there’s anyone—or anyone who isn’t some variety of psychopath—who can respond to the conflict with anything other than despair. Being a Zionist used to mean that there was a country you wanted to build and defend, burning like a newborn star; now, Zionism is when you despair over Israel instead of rejecting it outright. Palestine used to be the revolutionary hope of the colonised masses of the world, the heroic frontline against all injustice; now, the Palestinians are the universal sufferers, object of the rest of the world’s guilty, hopeless pity. People still play with their preferred solutions—one state, two states, three states, no state—but you know, secretly you know that there doesn’t have to be any solution at all, and it’s entirely possible for things to just steadily get worse, and worse, and worse, and never end.
But it’s difficult to hold a protest when you know there’s nothing a protest can really do. A few miles away, some patriotic, beer-bloated Englishmen had assembled in front of the Cenotaph to protect it from the hate marchers. And when the hate marchers failed to show up and desecrate it, leaving its defenders without much to do, they decided to have a go at desecrating the thing themselves. Soon they were charging at the police lines in a desperate effort to claw at its sacred stone. And maybe something similar happened where I was: maybe the absurd void at the centre of this hate march without any hate simply grew and grew until something, anything, rushed in to fill it. All I know is that there was a moment, just as my section of the hate march approached Vauxhall Bridge, when the entire mass of people seemed to go liquid, undifferentiated, and a sudden strong nausea rushed up my spinal cord and bloomed like an inkblot inside my brain. I dropped the protest sign I was holding, on which I’d described my wonderfully nuanced thoughts on the conflict in several long paragraphs of twelve-point text, so absolutely nobody would be able to misrepresent my position. I staggered to the edge of the hate march and squatted against the side of the bridge. My hands were tingling. I must have blacked out, because I remember regaining consciousness, sprawled out on the pavement. Consciousness was not pleasant. It was loud. Instead of the usual chaotic hubbub—the vast patchwork, up and down the hate march, of a few dozen protesters, clustered around the nearest person with a megaphone or a particularly loud voice, weakly chanting stop bombing children! stop bombing hospitals!—there was a roar. Half a million voices beating out the words in perfect military synchronicity. From the river to the sea! From the river to the sea! From the river to the sea!
As everyone knows, from the river to the sea is a hate slogan. What it actually means is not an area of land defined by its relation to two bodies of water, one static, one flowing, but kill all the Jews. Anyone using the phrase from the river to the sea is, you can assume, a genocidaire in waiting; when lots of people chant it together, pogroms are on the way. It’s not clear exactly how this transformation in meaning came about. The usual argument goes that it signals a rejection of the failed peace programme, and its increasingly implausible goal of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. When you say from the river to the sea, you mean you don’t want to carve up the land into partitions; you’ve attached yourself to some other, also increasingly implausible goal. Maybe a single democratic binational state in which both Jews and Palestinians can live in peace as equal citizens. Or maybe a fantasy in which Tel Aviv ends up looking like Gaza does now, and the victorious mujahideen herd any surviving Israelis onto boats, back to wherever their grandparents came from. Poland, if you’re lucky. Or Yemen. I suppose the idea is that from the river to the sea is a hate slogan because it might imply the latter option—which it might! But it’s also true that there are, in some countries in the region, people who want free and fair elections because they think a democratically elected government is more likely to do unpleasant things to the Jews. This does not mean that the demand for free and fair elections is a hate slogan. And in any case, while one of the two interpretations of from the river to the sea might be less nice than the other, it doesn’t look like either of them will actually be happening. The choice of slogan chanted on protests in Europe will not change that. It doesn’t matter. Almost nothing does.
But there was something strange about this chant. From the river to the sea! From the river to the sea! From the river to the sea… what, exactly? From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free? From the river to the sea, only Israel’s sovereignty? The hate marchers weren’t saying. Just repeating the river and the sea, the two aqueous features that together equal hate. I tried to prise myself off the pavement. Feet stamped in unison around me; a thin layer of skin had been scraped off the palm of my left hand. Just as I was about to attempt standing up, a hate marcher clambered over the side of the bridge right next to me and threw himself into the Thames. All I saw was a flash of his tanned calves and sandalled feet. The hate marchers screamed in approval. From the river to the sea! Up and down the bridge, this great mass of people was bulging over its bounds, shedding human bodies into the river. Hundreds of people climbing over the railing and plummeting down into the cold dirt-brown water. Already, a small raft of drowned bodies had formed, a clump of bloating limbs buffeted together by the currents and slowly drifting out under Lambeth Bridge and downstream. Another hopped up the railing next to me, and I tried to grab onto his leg. Stop! I wheezed. What are you doing? You’re throwing your life away! It’s pointless! It won’t achieve anything! It’ll just feed the cycle! More suffering! More misery! The hate marcher kicked at my desperate hands with his other foot. From the river to the sea! he shrieked, twisting his ankle free. He plunged, headfirst, off the bridge. But I understood now. This was their ambition. To go from the river to the sea: to float down the length of the Thames until its brown waters faded to grey, until its currents were lost in the implacable infinity of the ocean, until their waterlogged bodies sank down into the most lightless depths, there to disperse and decay, until the once-living stuff of a human body become something inorganic, particles in solution, the murk of seawater, its tang of salt. To pass from flowing water to still: to die. The hate marchers chanted, and this time they explained their secret. From the river to the sea! From the river to the sea! From the river to the sea! Going via the estuary!
What was happening? I crawled along the edge of the bridge on my hands and knees, as the masses poured off the side and into the water. If I’d tried to stand, I’m sure the pressure of jostling bodies would have thrown me off with them. Somehow, I managed to make it to the south bank of the Thames intact. That nausea was still billowing inside me as I very tentatively wobbled to my feet, to see what had turned this protest into a suicide pact. My fellow hate marchers were still filling the streets, and still chanting. But now, for the first time, I saw them for what they really were. I had thought these people were my comrades. But in fact, they were, all of them, even the children, obviously, undeniably, nothing more than a pack of ante-Semites.
The ante-Semites were ugly, backwards people. They didn’t look particularly bright either. Dark thuggish faces; crude and nasty eyes. They hefted spears tipped with flint or bone. They wore rough animal hides, or fabrics woven from the tough stringy fibres of woodbark. Thick wooden sandals, rough-hewn, cracking. Hair braided and gummed with animal blood. The ante-Semites chanted and muttered in fragments of ante-Semitic speech, which consisted of long finely toned wails interspersed with half-whispered coughing sounds, somewhere between an ordinary consonant and a click. Some of them had daubed the walls with ante-Semitic symbols in lime and pitch. Crude images of birds, spirals, skulls. Some of the ante-Semites were carrying actual skulls: impaled on sticks, or hanging on leather cords around their necks. Skulls plastered to reproduce the fleshy features that had rotted away. Skulls with clay lips and seashells for eyes; mute, unblinking.
It was the skulls that let me know for certain that these people really were ante-Semites. In the 1930s, archaeologists started digging up plastered skulls in sites in what’s now the West Bank. Objects from the edge of the palaeolithic, ten thousand years old. Whoever plastered these skulls had buried them under their homes. These were some of the first people to settle permanently in the land between the river and the sea: the first to bury their ancestors beneath their beds and claim that soil for their descendants. They also produced the oldest masks in human history: creepy, grinning, skull-like faces made of limestone. Those masks were too heavy to be worn, but they had holes around the sides; clearly, they were made to be strapped to something. One theory holds that they were worn by the dead. The mask was a face for the corpse: when someone died, you would prop their body up, and put a mask over their head, a mask to replace the skin that was slowly putrefying off their bones.
Nobody paid much attention to the creepy masks and the creepy plastered skulls. Back in the 1930s, archaeologists in the southern Levant were mostly interested in establishing the veracity or otherwise of stories from the Bible. Today, that’s even more true than it was then. Israeli archaeology is concerned with finding evidence for the rich Jewish history of everywhere the IDF sets up a fortified outpost. It’s very, very interested in the First and Second Temple periods. It’s not nearly as interested in Ottoman villages or Byzantine treasures, and it’s not at all interested in these murky and foreign prehistories, long before there were Hebrews or the Arabs, when the Holy Land was holy to a nameless, darker god.
But here they were, the only true indigenes of the land of Israel. Ten thousand years had closed over them; strange new peoples had risen to war and bicker over the places where they buried their skulls—but now they were back. And they had noticed me, alone in the middle of their crowd, with my pale skin and blue jeans. A Jew! one screamed. Suddenly there was a vast clamour, as all the ante-Semites turned to gawp and leer. A Jew! A Jew is here! A Jew is marching with us! He’s one of the good ones! He’s on our side! They jabbed their spears and skulls at me and said this, and I tried not to smile too nervously and said yes, yes, absolutely, of course. I learned that while we call them Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, the ante-Semites’ name for themselves in their own language was Xaakxequur, which means Vessels of the White God, and the White God is the human skull. Your death, which is waiting for you beneath your face this very instant. The Xaakxequur worshipped death. They practiced murder, fratricide, as a religious sacrament: the rite of the White God. Next to murder, suicide was their most highly esteemed deed, and then procreation, which enriches the world with future corpses. Whenever one of the Xaakxequur died, even the dead man’s children would join the mob that cursed his name and destroyed his property. The man that lived must vanish, lose all his differentiation, his face, before he can become the White God. What else is there to worship? Death sustains all. Only the dead can give man his meat. The dying sky rains its lifeblood to water the earth, and then the rivers rush like an opened vein. There is an invisible force, a death-energy, that permeates all things.
One of the ante-Semites seemed suspicious. I don’t believe him, he said, prodding me with a lump of bone. You say you’re with us, he said, you say you want to help us take back the land your people stole. Tell me, though—why? He was toying with me, I realised. He’d seen me on the bridge, clawing at that man’s ankle, begging him not to jump. Because I follow the White God, I mumbled. But why? asked the ante-Semite. Because, I started. Because the dead are the world’s oppressed majority? the ante-Semite suggested. Absolutely, I said. The crowd of half a million Stone Age death-worshippers, which had been watching in rapt silence, suddenly started hissing. A hiss that seemed to sound from one horizon to the other. They were vibrating with fury. You see! the ante-Semite roared. You see! How unworthy they are, these usurpers! They blaspheme before the White God! With their weeping eyes! Their wailing lips! He leaned in close to me. All you fucking people, he hissed, you’re all the same. You deserve each other! You pretend that the worst thing about your conflict is the violence. Pathetic! There’s violence everwhere, all over the world. But there is nobody, nobody else on the planet, with your cloying fucking moral smugness. You perform the rites of the White God, but you won’t even say his name! No, every time you conjure him, you stand on your hill of corpses and get all teary-eyed about the justice of your cause! How victimised you are! How innocent! How nobody has any standing to ever criticise anything you do! I can hit you, but you aren’t allowed to hit me… That’s all you believe! Nobody has ever made war with such sanctimony. Where did you learn that? Not from us! We were never so arrogant. When we made war, it was to feed the White God. But you Semites, you slimy hypocrites, with the kohl around your eyes, with your hair all oiled, your graduate degrees—you kill each other, and then scold the dead for having made you do it… Where did you people come from? How have we been replaced by such children? But you, Sam—you still think I’m talking about someone else, don’t you? Not the big weepy diaspora intellectual. You go on peace marches. You call for the ceasefire. You anti-Zionist Jews, you enlightened Arabs, with your fine nose for injustice: you think you’re better than the bloodthirsty maniacs in the Middle East, don’t you? You’re worse! All you do is ramp up that same Semitic smugness: it’s the same madness in your head as in Netanyahu’s, but now nobody is allowed to hit anyone, and you’re the most perfectly morally righteous of all… Enough! Enough of all of you! We Xaakxequur support the war! We welcome it! Your war is the only good thing about you! May the day come when all of you wipe each other out, and the land is bequeathed to fifteen million grinning instances of the White God! Death! Death to the Arabs! Death to the Jews!
He delivered the last section of this ante-Semitic rant inches from my face. His eyes bulged. His face was dripping with furious sweat. At that last line, the mob wailed its approval, and then he clubbed me over the head.
Things were blurry after that. The Xaakxequur dragged me into a secret network of mysterious tunnels under London. Crowds of people marched through those tunnels, not talking to each other, not looking at each other’s faces, blank with some terrifying militant purpose. There were some kind of huge machines moving around down there in the lower depths. I should have been terrified, but in fact I felt strangely calm. The ante-Semite’s speech had shocked me out of my self-delusion. My solidarity with Palestine really had been just another form of cruelty. The protest I’d joined really was a hate march. I understood everything. And while I was now a captive, surely it wouldn’t be long before they rescued me. The Israel Defence Forces, sword and shield of the Jewish people: soon they would be here, in London, to bring me home by any means necessary. A crack IDF unit, bursting into the intensive care ward at St Thomas’ Hospital, pulling out all the breating tubes, squeezing all the drip bags, turning the machines off one by one. Israeli infantry moving systematically through the supermarket shelves, tactically applying blank stickers to the allergy information. Elite hackers from Unit 8200 gaining control of the traffic lights to send cars racing into each other at high speed. A ring of fire around London as the warehouses burn. Thousands would have to die, obviously; regrettable, but this is war. I dreamed the council estates crumpling, one after another, in great cushions of smoke. Desperate crowds queuing outside a bakery, then the sudden whine of am incoming JDAM, and Gail’s erupts in a shower of sourdough dust and human viscera. Attack helicopters strafing the Winter Wonderland. Merkavas lined up on Primrose Hill. And finally, a ground-penetrating munition, yearning through the understuff of the city, towards this dark place in which I was being held, to embrace me, to robe me in pure white light…
I regained consciousness, sprawled out on the pavement on Vauxhall Bridge. A girl in a hijab and a dayglo steward’s vest with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign logo was shining a torch into my eyes. Oh, she said, you’re awake. She told me I’d collapsed. All around me, one million feet were slowly shuffling southwards. People who wanted peace. There were no bodies in the Thames; there were no death-worshippers in the streets. Bombs were falling and buildings were burning, just not here. But I had not been dreaming. I could still feel it: his hatred, burning. The enemy that lived inside the face of every person on the march, and also inside my own. Just beneath the skin.
Become your hatred