Looking But Not Seeing. A Parable for Our Times.

On December 3rd 2019, during the anti-Trump march along the Mall, a young man with a video camera approached a seventy-year old demonstrator – Sam – remarked on the Jewish Voice for Labour badge he had on his lapel, and asked him for an interview. Sam agreed and then, when it was over, Joseph revealed he was from the Israel Advocacy Movement. Strangely, Joseph then gave Sam his card. The next morning, Sam wrote Joseph this email

Jospeh Cohen with his Palestinian scharf so he can disrupt

An email to Joseph Cohen

Hi Joseph…

Sam here. Thank you so much for giving me your card with your email. It’s allowed me to write this to you.

I’ve been thinking about last night and all the remarkable encounters I had.

When the march set off from Trafalgar Square, we hadn’t gone fifty yards when a bunch of guys started shouting abuse at us from a pub on the corner of Spring Gardens. As has been my style when canvassing for Labour in Thurrock and other hotspots, I’ve never walked away; instead, I went up to them and asked why they were so angry. These were four or five middle-aged English guys some people would mockingly call ‘gammon’.

In the course of the next few minutes, I had engaged with one in particular and among the many things he came out with was this: “Hitler didn’t kill any Jews”. I was so shocked at these words I asked him to repeat them so I could record it on my phone. Which he did. I’ve still got the video. I then asked him if he would give me his name. But he refused. To which I said: “Are you ashamed of your words?” “No. I’m just not giving my name…”

Let me call him Joe. Cos I’ve met lots of guys like him, canvassing during this election, especially in places completely devastated by austerity, their hearts ripped out.

Just an ordinary Joe.

We continued talking. I asked him why he wouldn’t vote Labour; after all, he was a working-class guy. He was being offered wonderful things if Corbyn got in. The NHS would remain secure. Council House building. Fair taxation. Work protection. An end to Universal Credit etc … I told him what I often say to these guys: “My wife has had cancer. Twice. The second time four years ago. My son lives in the USA; he’s 45. Until a year or two ago he had no health insurance. If you get cancer in the US, it can bankrupt you. Even with health insurance, people have been forced to do a Go Fund Me, so they don’t end up living in their car or on the streets. Imagine all the stress that would cause, apart from the stress of having the cancer. The NHS is in crisis. Is being sold off bit by bit. Ask any doctor or nurse. Do you want it destroyed?”

To which he said: “I know. My wife died of cancer. Four years ago”. Joseph, he didn’t say that to ‘trump’ me (pardon the expression). No, he said it as a matter of fact. And, at that moment, I first saw properly his eyes and that he was a deeply hurt guy.

From that moment on something happened. He kind of opened up. The other guys got bored and, bit by bit, drifted off into the pub. We stayed outside.

We didn’t become ‘best buddies’ or anything like that. But he listened to me. And more and more kept on saying he agreed with me. About the NHS. About the mess the country was in. That he didn’t like or trust Johnson or the Tories.

Of course, he said what I often hear on these occasions: he didn’t like Corbyn. He didn’t really know why. Terrorist sympathiser. Went on an IRA march. Friend of Hamas. The usual talking points. But as I spoke to him about my belonging to JVL, about my dad, an East End Jew, who was a firefighter during the Blitz and my uncle who was an RAF navigator and shot down and killed aged 22, I could see the pain and discomfort in Joe’s eyes.

And how much he was listening. And trying to understand something. He had no disrespect for me. In fact, on a number of occasions, during our talk, I offered him my hand. And he shook it. Near the end of the conversation – he tried to bring it to an halt a number of times, saying he needed a pee – we shook hands, a last time, and over his shoulder, as he left, he called back: “You know, I would vote Labour, if Corbyn wasn’t the leader”.

But that wasn’t quite the end of the story.

I’d spent so much time talking to him, the March had completely gone by. The street was empty. My wife and I had already lost one another in the melée, so I headed for the Palace and eventually she and I did meet up, after you’d interviewed me. And both of us decided to head for the Tube. Then, on a sudden whim, I said to her: “Let’s see if that guy is still in the pub. I’d like you to meet him.” So we went back. I went inside. And he was still there. I tapped him on the shoulder and said: “My wife’s outside. She’d love to say hello to you.” to which he replied: “Ok. But I’ve just got to go to the loo…” and with a bit of wry smile, as his reason: “I’ve been doing a bit of drinking…”

I went back outside. By this time, my wife was talking with a group of young women from Dover. One was a mental health nurse who wasn’t sure who she’d vote for. The others, her two sisters and some friends, were Labour voters. I got drawn into that conversation too. Time passed a little. But Joe didn’t appear. So I asked my wife to come back into the crowded pub with me to where he was sitting.

But he’d gone. It must have been out of the side entrance. I don’t know why he’d not come to us. Maybe he’d been afraid. Not of talking. But of meeting my wife. Who was alive. And his who was no longer. Who knows?

I’ll never forget that encounter.

The Dover girls then invited us to bop on the pavement right in front of the Stand Up to Racism lorry that was blaring out hip hop/grime/house music. At first, we refused saying we were tired and wanted to go home. But they dragged us along and we ended up bopping for about half an hour, waving our Stand Up to Racism placards at the traffic and getting a brilliant response from cyclists, motorcyclists and particularly the dozens and dozens of cars driven by black and Asian drivers. One pedestrian even fist-bumped me. Of course, there was the occasional – white – taxi or van driver who shook his head, scowled or looked angry but nearly everyone – even in their bus, van or car – was moving to the rhythm and beat and pumping the air with their fist…

And then, Joseph, there was you.

Asking me some questions about Tory MP’s who were anti-Semitic and a Tory leader who had written an introduction to an antisemitic book. And then, surprise, surprise!!! The reveal:  they were trick questions!!! All your examples were LABOUR politicians!!! Ha! Ha! Got you!!!!

Which, in hindsight, was so interesting. You had spent all your time and energy on this. Not on the guys at the Admiralty pub. You’d gone after me because I had a JVL badge on. Instead of engaging with, and trying to understand, the Joes of this world, the guys who didn’t believe Hitler killed any Jews, you were going after me.

JVL is a bigger enemy to you than the real or potential Nazis.

All it was about for you was point-scoring. While ignoring the real threat. And the real problem. The people whose dreams have evaporated. Who are bitter and angry and hurt. Who knows, Joseph, maybe one day a Joe, or one of his mates, will get a gun or a knife and do a Thomas Mair on a woman MP, a Jew or a Muslim. I hope not. I hope we can fix what’s wrong with the country. With the world. And that white nationalism, racism and fascism will be made to bow their ugly heads again and disappear.

But you – an intelligent and educated guy – spent all you time and energy (not to mention your camera and light batteries!!) on a Jewish socialist while there were fascists or potential fascists in the pub down the road. You were disengaged from the real problem. And what is really happening in the world.

If you really care about it, we should be allies in the fight against racism and antisemitism, Joseph.

But will you hear it?

‘Joe’ listened a lot to me. He opened his ears. I think he was changed by our meeting. I think he will be thinking about it this morning. As I am.

But what did you do, Joseph? Did you hear anything? Did you connect in any way? Or did you just go home with a big smile on your face thinking you’d ‘caught out’ that JVL member?

Those are genuine questions you need to ask yourself, Joseph. How can I not ask them of you, with the way things are?

With Best Wishes,

Sam…

 

Comments (13)

  • Andy Sluckin says:

    Thanks Sam for your moving account of meeting Joe and Joseph. You exemplify why we must keep talking and not shy away from dialogue, however hard it seems.

  • Miriam David says:

    Yes thanks Sam for a very moving account… I was not as brave as you and left the march on Buckingham Palace though I was in Trafalgar Square. To me, it seems to be a fight between and amongst different kinds of Jews.

  • ruby lescott says:

    am in tears Sam. Wonderful story.

  • Dorothy Macedo says:

    Very moving and brave! And I wonder if Sam’s dad knew MY dad, another Jewish firefighter during the Blitz?

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    What a fabulous, thoughtful, loving beautifully written account. Thank you Sam – and it mustn’t be buried here on a website which is largely read by the already converted – we must use stories like this in a more public way, and there must be many more to unearth.

  • David Nissen says:

    This ‘Joe’ is a well known fanatical Zionist. He is a regular visitor at Speakers Corner and I have had many arguments with him before. You will find him on every Anti Corbyn demo going and he will be at the Zionist demo on Sunday

  • Dave Lewis says:

    An incredibly moving and powerful story, Sam. Thank you for committing it to paper/website.

  • Liza Dresner says:

    Wonderful piece of writing Sam. Last week my partner was out canvassing in a group with a local hard working councillor. We live in golders green and finchley constituency where I a Jewish woman, have lived almost all my 65 years. A Jewishwish gentleman wearing a yamulka began to shout at her, calling her a Nazi! People came out of their houses at the noise. Not to help or remonstrate with him about the democratic process but to join in the abuse leaving her tearful and terrified. I wanted to go back the next day to talk to him but sadly everyone was too scared and felt it was pointless. What have we become?

  • Sue says:

    @David Nissen: I think you are writing about Joseph, not Joe.

  • Samantha Bentley says:

    This is an absolutely fantastic article. Thank you to Sam from another Sam for sharing this. An absolute must read

  • Jo says:

    Joseph is part of Guido Fawkes, his video was put on their site. https://order-order.com/2019/12/05/corbynistas-react-think-corbyns-anti-semitism-said-boris/
    What he did was gaslighting. Context – you ask person A a loaded question about something person B, who they don’t like is to have purported to have done. Rational minds will realise that this is then piling negatives onto negatives, so of course person A will condemn person B. So, if you already think Johnson is unfit to lead the country, this will add fuel to that belief.

    If they had really wanted to prove anything, they would have given hypothetical situations with an anonymous politician. It stands to reason that you wouldn’t think that a man who has always done good would be unfit to lead, because the comments are weighted against all the positives.

  • Louis Walsh says:

    I seen the post and decided I would research the statements he had made. So the very first one I checked that he posted up was a lie by saying Corbyn had said something antisemitic when it was in fact a member of the party who was subsequently thrown out of the for the statement he confessed he had said and nothing to do with Corbyn.
    To be honest I didnt bother waiting my time because the questions he was asking people were clearly incorrect from the offset.
    I messaged this to him but never received a reply.
    As far as I’m concerned racism is inherent in us all just by the fact we are we and everyone else is the other whether your black, white, green or orange have 2 legs, no legs or 4 legs.
    There are differences amongst us all and we will always have an inclination to favour what is closest to ourselves. Maybe it’s some form of animal survival instinct? But we’re not animals and should have the intelligence to see and act above what may well be instinctual. Unfortunately that isn’t always the case and we do have people from all walks of life who haven’t figured this out yet. I would never deny that there will be racist attitudes in members of parliament no matter which side their on just like racism will exist amongst religious leaders. What annoys me is the scale of attack by the tories and their finger pointing at Corbyn, their scare mongering amongst the Jewish community and the dishonety behind it all. If anything the lies being told are fuelling anti semitism but these people dont give a damn about the Jewish people or the impact on them all they care about is trying to score points against Labour and making themselves look clever.

  • juliet solomon says:

    What seldom gets an airing is the kind of subjects that used to be debated before the media had a lot of “opinion formers” trying to tell us what to think. If, when someone starts batting on about Corbyn, or Johnson, or Farage, you ask them what forms the basis of their social beliefs, you can have quite an interesting discussion without the need to sink to personalities or to party politics, before these issues are mentioned.

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