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Israel-Palestine war: Britain's epidemic of unchallenged anti-Palestinian racism

The UK risks importing the bloodshed from Gaza if its supposedly mainstream thinkers continue to recklessly deploy venomous and inflammatory anti-Muslim bigotry
Pro-Palestinian supporters march near the Israeli embassy in London on 9 October, 2023 (Reuters)

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman weighed into the Gaza conflict on Sunday by issuing a public warning that there “must be zero tolerance for antisemitism or the glorification of terrorism on the streets of Britain”.

She was right to do so. Even the most fervent supporters of the Palestinian cause must recognise that it is one of the duties of a British home secretary to prevent violence and hatred erupting on British streets - and never more so than when war breaks out in the Middle East, with the passions it engenders on all sides.

More than ever, at times like this there is a need for decency, level-headed thinking and civility.

Unfortunately, the home secretary’s intervention has so far been one-sided.

Over the last 48 hours, Britain has experienced an epidemic of almost unchallenged anti-Palestinian racism and anti-Muslim bigotry - and Braverman has been inexcusably silent.

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What is more, this bigotry has been perpetrated by people in a position of responsibility. 

'Islamic bloodlust'

Take the editor of the British newspaper Jewish News, Richard Ferrer. He wrote in the Daily Express on Sunday that Hamas’s military attack on Israel was “plain and simply historic Islamic bloodlust, passed down through the generations from birth”.

This rhetoric is venomous, and arguably a form of blood libel. After a backlash, the word “Islamic” was changed to “Islamist”. 

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The editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Jake Wallis Simons, said on the same day that “much of Muslim culture is in the grip of a death cult that sacralised bloodshed. Not all, but many Muslims are brainwashed by it”. After a backlash, he deleted the tweet. Note he left it up for over a day.

These inflammatory remarks risk importing the bloodshed in Gaza into Britain itself.

Moreover, such talk of “Islamic bloodlust” and a Muslim “death cult” is not just dangerous - it’s historically false. It’s worth remembering that when the Jews were driven out of Christian Spain in 1492, many found safety in the Islamic world, above all the Ottoman Empire.

The Jewish historian Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University, exploded this false narrative in his recent book Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew, stressing the “old tradition of religious tolerance and long history of relative harmony between the different sections of society” in his native Iraq.

As Shlaim pointed out: “It took Europe much longer than the Arab world to accept the Jews as equal co-citizens.”

Outright bigotry

It is hard to exaggerate how solemn this moment is in the history of the modern Middle East. It is the most frightening since the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago.

At such times, there is a special responsibility on those in a position of influence to respond calmly and to avoid inflammatory language.

However, others have joined in. The former editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, has tried to weaponise the tragic events of the last few days with the comment: “Vote Starmer get Islam” - framing British Muslims as an existential enemy.

Imagine the reaction if MacKenzie had warned that voting for Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives meant that you “get Hinduism”. This would be immediately called out as outright bigotry.

Douglas Murray, a prominent right-wing commentator who writes regularly for the Spectator and the Sun, tweeted a photo of two men in New York holding a sign saying “Jews for a free Palestine”. He described them as “the stupidest people in NY today. Jews for mass suicide”.

“British Jews braced for hate crimes as pro-Palestinian groups celebrate,” read one headline in the Times on Sunday, explicitly connecting pro-Palestinian groups to antisemitic attacks.

It is becoming acceptable in much of British discourse to imply that the Palestinian flag itself - which is not the Hamas flag - is somehow murderous, terroristic and antisemitic

Antisemitism is foul, but it is offensive and dangerous to imply that any expression of Palestinian identity or support for Palestinian self-determination - a legitimate struggle under international law - is considered morally wrong and even terroristic.

It is becoming acceptable in much of British discourse to imply that the Palestinian flag itself - which is not the Hamas flag - is somehow murderous, terroristic and antisemitic.

This means there is no way for Palestinians to express their identity without being smeared as terrorists. 

Support for Palestinian freedom and self-determination is viewed as "barbaric". Even a hint of solidarity with Palestinians is treated as support for brutality.

And it’s not just journalists. 

War crimes

James Orr, a professor of philosophy and religion at Cambridge University, captioned a video of a crowd in Manchester waving Palestinian flags and signs saying “Freedom for Palestine” and asked: “Have Britain's streets witnessed anything more morally abhorrent than this?”

Some would say they have. And one wonders how Palestinian students at Cambridge might feel about Orr’s attitude.

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Cambridge academic Charlotte Proudman tweeted a video of a car emblazoned with a Palestine flag honking next to a motorbike flying the same flag and captioned it: “Celebrating the murders and kidnapping of Israelis is quite possibly the most heinous act of public hate I have seen on the streets of London.”

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ordered the Israeli flag to be projected onto 10 Downing Street, while promising “unequivocal support” for Israel.

Yet recent history teaches us that Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza. Nearly 1,500 Palestinian civilians were killed in 2014 in Operation Protective Edge. In 2018, more than 200 Palestinians in Gaza were shot dead by Israeli snipers, and 36,000 injured during the peaceful Great March of Return protests.

On Monday, the Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, ordered a full siege of the Gaza Strip, including a ban on the admission of food, electricity and fuel. This smacks of collective punishment for Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians, which would be a war crime under international law. 

Yet, when given the opportunity to condemn this on television, Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly would not do so.

Paradoxically enough, some of the Israeli press is much more balanced than the British coverage. Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, published an editorial on Sunday declaring Hamas’s attack to be “the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu”.

It accused Netanyahu of failing “to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession, when appointing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir to key positions, while embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians”.

Sunak’s decision to give a blanket endorsement to whatever Netanyahu’s Israel might do in the days and nights to come is not simply a betrayal of the Palestinians - it’s reckless and irresponsible.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
Imran Mulla is a journalist at Middle East Eye. He has written for a range of publications including Prospect Magazine, The Critic, Varsity and Conservative Home.
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