OPINION - The rush to take sides over Israel, Gaza and Hamas war is building intolerance and division into our society

Greta Thunberg posed with a "stand with Gaza" sign (handout)
Greta Thunberg posed with a "stand with Gaza" sign (handout)

My elder daughter told me some girls and boys in her school year had drawn Palestinian flags on their hands. My younger daughter told me other nine and 10-year-olds in her class had asked her what “side” she was on.

In the UK, as in other Western countries, this picking of sides says more about us than the conflict itself. What makes a progressive choose to walk hand-in-hand with a jihadist? This has been vexing a lot of people over the past two weeks. The former can always pretend the latter is a “victim” of Western imperialism. The latter presumably thinks of the former as a useful idiot. If they are both operating on the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, who is the enemy? It’s almost as if an actual attack on Israel presented an opportunity to, er, attack Israel. The suffering of civilians in Gaza deserves a concerted effort for peace, not to be used as a vehicle for hatred by a coalition of illiberal absolutists.

There are many people who support the Palestinian cause in good faith. There are others who do so because it fits their view of history and politics. There are those who seek the personal rapture of fighting a perceived injustice. And then there are others who simply hate Jews. For some, one world view bleeds into another.

It is inevitable that we judge situations through our own experience and prejudices, but to pick a side in this conflict without accepting the possibility of doubt is dangerous. Israel and Palestine has never been simple, so to treat it as such is to frame this great narrative in a lie. It’s beginning to feel like October 7 never happened. A rigid “Israel bad, Palestine good” not only imperils individuals but undermines our social fabric if, for example, we can’t even find consensus on what Hamas is. As someone said to me, “If you put a Palestinian flag in your car people will honk their horns in support, if you put an Israeli flag in your car you get a brick through the window”.

There are too many who believe that if your opinion is not binary you must be on the wrong side of history

Opinions, action and inaction are too often guided by what is convenient. Between the Islamists and Left-wing activists at one end and the Jewish community and their supporters on the other is the majority of the public who do not much care and have little personal investment in this schism. Since it is impossible to completely untangle anti-Israeli sentiment from the pro-Palestinian movement, such rhetoric — including the non-euphemism “from the river to the sea” — is designed to make the uncommitted feel that picking a side is straightforward and unavoidable: that it would be convenient for them to accept the objective truth of Israel’s villainy.

The reaction from the arts was typical: silence or assume there’s an easy answer. A few of the actors behind the Artists For Palestine open letter now have buyer’s remorse, when it dawned on them they had signed a document that didn’t acknowledge the 1,400 Israeli civilians who’d been murdered, often in the most horrific ways imaginable. I’m sure Greta Thunberg knows more about the climate crisis than I do, but is she sufficiently well informed on Middle Eastern politics to grasp the impact of her alignment with one camp over the other?

The approach of the police has been predictable, if corrosive. Jews are a tiny minority in the UK and they make less noise than the other side (most are openly critical of the Israeli government, though not of Israel’s right to defend itself). It’s easy for the police to stop a bus displaying Israelis kidnapped by Hamas. It’s certainly easier than trying to shut down a jihadist screaming for genocide. The police are wary of setting a precedent on the basis that if they break up one hate platform, they’ll have to break them all up. Intimidation works and is seen to work.

Picking sides isn’t only an imperative for Islamists and the Left. A Jewish friend told me it was disconcerting that the only public figures happy to stand up against anti-Semitism were those he had always disliked on the Right and he was justifiably concerned the very worst of them were using it as an excuse to pursue their culture war agenda.

There are too many people who believe open debate is not only awkward but immoral, and that if your opinion is not binary you must be on the wrong side of history. But certainty often leads to tragedy. It would be grimly ironic if in unequivocal support of the victims of one group we made our own society more intolerant, more unstable and blind to the suffering of the other. Taking sides has demonstrated our capacity for self-harm. And now we are letting our children do it. This is not the light of liberty. It’s the shadow of barbarism.

George Chesterton is the Evening Standard’s executive editor