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Brits Are Not So Divided Over The War On Gaza

National March for Palestine. Image: flickr.

Staff writer Alex Astley discusses the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, advocating for stronger social cohesion in solidarity for victims of the war.

Pro-Palestine, pro-Israel, anti-Israel, pro-Gaza, Zionists, anti-Zionists, terrorists, militants, sympathisers, ceasefires, humanitarian pauses, genocide, self-defence, hate marches, central-London-no-go-zones… Descriptions and labels have proliferated like pondweed in the British media since the war on Gaza began. The use of these words and phrases has done a good job of categorising and dividing the public into two apparently opposing camps squaring up in an implacable stand-off. Though the questions and debates they raise are important surrounding the conflict in Gaza, it has successfully distracted our attention, time and again, from the most pressing issues before us: stopping the war, releasing the hostages. But divisive language can be dangerous as well as distracting; the rise in religious hate crime in this country should serve as a clear enough warning.

In the first three months after Hamas’s attack on the 7th of October the UK witnessed a disturbing increase in antisemitic incidents, up 589% compared to the previous year. This made 2023 the worst calendar year on record, with 4,103 incidents recorded in total. Statistics can be easy to gloss over, but it is important to remember that there are real people behind the percentages. More than two hundred incidents involved assaults, in which Jewish victims have been kicked, spat at, threatened with knives, or been stripped of religious clothing. In other cases, Jewish property, cemeteries, and synagogues have been desecrated or damaged. Some of these have been daubed with Nazi insignia, and in one instance a vehicle was driven against a Jewish-owned building.

Attacks against Muslims have also increased since 7 October, with 2,010 incidents reported in the first four months. That is more than triple the amount compared to the same period the previous year, with Muslim women having to suffer the brunt of Islamophobic abuse. Death threats have been sent to mosques, Muslim women have been called “terrorists”, one woman’s car was vandalised with a swastika (the tactics of hate are seldom original), and another, wearing Islamic clothing, was assaulted on a London bus and told “you Muslims are troublemakers.”

If we repeat the sort of divisive rhetoric that some of our politicians and media personalities so blithely roll out – “no-go zones“, “hate marches“, “mob rule” – we stoke the bigotry that precedes any intolerant society, and we risk becoming dividers ourselves. And it is the minority groups, religious or otherwise, who have most to fear from intolerance. It is not surprising, then, that the directors of the two organisations that published these reports on antisemitism and islamophobia drew attention to the same premise in their concluding remarks: we are all responsible for combatting hate and for working to unite, not divide, our communities.

Most of us already know this, of course. This is clear in the fact that the efforts of those who aim to divide have been overwhelmed by displays of solidarity and a respect for common decency. Solidarity and common decency, these are the reason why holocaust survivors have joined those who march calling for an end to the war, and the reason that protesters against antisemitism rejected the presence of Tommy Robinson and his far-right crew. It is also the reason why thousands, from diverse backgrounds and faiths, gathered on the 3rd of December in a vigil for all of those killed in Israel and Palestine, and to stand united against prejudice.

The truth is that “we have far more in common than that which divides us”. These were the words chosen by the late MP Jo Cox for her maiden speech in Parliament. She was murdered by a white supremacist in Leeds in 2016, an extreme example of the very intolerance which she campaigned against. In her memory, the research consortium More in Common was founded, to address the drivers of polarisation in our society and to establish common ground. The findings of their comprehensive report on the public’s attitude and response to the war on Gaza are telling. To begin, the us-versus-them narrative is false. It may well serve to improve the careers of a handful of journalists and politicians, but it does not reflect the way most people think. Worse still, it threatens community relations.

Rather than taking a binary position, either pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, most of the British public have not taken a “side” at all. The majority see the war with a shared abhorrence toward Hamas’s attacks, and a shared concern for civilian life in Israel and Gaza. In response to surveys, a ceasefire is the most popular course of action for the government to pursue. Most people also worry about deteriorating communal ties, and feel let down by politicians whom they believe have been exploiting a fragile situation for personal gain.

But divisive rhetoric has another, more subtle, side-effect. It debases every point of contention that emerges from the level of intelligent discussion to an absurd dialogue of the deaf that inevitably sucks in otherwise sensible people. In doing so, we lose sight of that which most of us agreed on to begin with. That which we all want. Stop the war, release the hostages. These words should be repeated, mantra like, until government listens. At time of writing, ministers still refuse to halt arms exports to Israel, despite the expressed concerns of top judges and lawyers that doing so puts the UK at risk of breaching international law. Despite the fact a majority of UK voters are in favour of banning arms sales to Israel. And despite the fact three of our own citizens were killed by an Israeli drone while delivering aid. Meanwhile, civilian life remains cheap in Gaza, and we continue to provide the weapons that are lowering the price.

There is no denying that social tensions have increased in recent months, but most of us share the same fundamental human values that have formed public opinion in response to this war. The real division in this country is the same as it has always been. It is not between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis, but between those who seek to divide and those who work to unite.

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