A week before Hamas’s 7 October massacre of Israelis, Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, complacently declared: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” Indeed, much of the world appeared to have resolved to move on from the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict: the Israeli government abandoned any pretence of a two-state solution, Arab states sought to normalise relations with their old foe, and political attention in the West was absorbed by other issues: living standards stagnation, populist insurgencies, immigration, Covid-19, the war in Ukraine.
But the contradictions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could not be indefinitely suppressed – and they have resurged with horrific force.
A 75-year-old dispute is now interacting with contemporary maladies: unregulated social media, fake news, hyperpolarisation, culture wars, the erosion of civic trust. The task facing the leaders of Western democracies is to prevent their societies from becoming irrevocably fractured. In the UK, anti-Semitic offences have risen by 1,353 per cent since 7 October, while Islamophobic offences have increased by 140 per cent. Behind these abstract numbers are traumatised lives. On 2 November, the word “Gaza” was daubed in red paint on a sign outside the Wiener Holocaust Library in London. At Shakeshuka, a Palestinian takeaway in London, staff have reported receiving daily death threats.
In this toxic climate, politicians and activists have a responsibility to show empathy, sensitivity and human decency. But too often they do not. At recent demonstrations in London, thousands of protesters have chanted “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, heedless of how this will be received by Jews. As Jon Lansman, the founder of the activist group Momentum, observes on page 12, “The language you use at times when there are emotionally driven responses to violence on both sides matters. The Jewish community in Britain, understandably, sees the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ as an attack on Israel’s existence, people should understand that.”
The radical left has long subscribed to the definition of a racist incident used by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry: “Any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” But it rarely applies this standard to allegations of anti-Semitism, either out of animosity towards Israel or a belief that Jews are more “privileged” than other minority groups.
Yet it is wrong to characterise pro-Palestinian demonstrations as “hate marches” as the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, did on 30 October. While extremists have been present, many of those who attended did so out of revulsion at the loss of civilian life in Gaza (which now stands at more than 10,000, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry). Existing laws cover offences such as incitement to religious and racial hatred; the demand by some to ban protests is illiberal and unjustified.
This febrile atmosphere is not limited to the UK. Tens of thousands have marched in protest against Israel’s assault on Gaza in cities around the world, including Washington DC, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur. Citing safety concerns, authorities in both Germany and France have also attempted to block pro-Palestinian protests, symbols and slogans. In France, which has the world’s third-largest Jewish population after Israel and the United States, the interior minister Gérald Darmanin has warned of an “explosion” of anti-Semitism.
Social media inevitably fuels polarisation and extremism but it also creates a distorted impression of public opinion. A recent YouGov poll found that 66 per cent of the British public believes Hamas is a terrorist organisation, compared with just 6 per cent who do not (a total that rises slightly to 11 per cent among adults aged 18 to 25). Most Britons – 56 per cent – have sympathy for both Israelis and the Palestinians.
As politicians condemn extremists and demagogues on both sides, they must also give voice to this quiet, decent majority. The depiction of the UK as a segregated battle zone risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy as individuals conclude they have no choice but to side with their “tribe”. A multiracial, post-imperial Britain has little capacity to shape events in the Middle East but our leaders can resist the degradation of our society.
[See also: Has Starmer dared Sunak to sack Braverman?]
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury