Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
The 1918 General Election campaign began shortly after the Armistice which on 11 November had finally ended four years of conflict. Seeking a mandate for a programme of radical social reform, Prime Minister David Lloyd-George argued that the “the Great War has been like a gigantic shell star”, illuminating the sorry state of the nation.
A century later, the Hamas attack on Israel has similarly turned a searchlight on corners of this country which many would prefer to remain in the shadows. The discord of the past few weeks mocks claims about a united kingdom.
In 2018, a video went viral on YouTube of a cardboard model of Grenfell Tower being burned on a bonfire at a private party. In the second of the two court cases that resulted, the incident was condemned by the Westminster Magistrate’s Court Chief Magistrate as “disgusting, disrespectful, abhorrent”. The court was told “it heaped more misery and trauma on the Grenfell Tower survivors and their families.”
Did anyone who marched through central London in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza on the last two Saturdays consider that their choice might heap more misery and trauma on the families bereaved by the 7 October massacre of 1,400 Israelis?
(It seems a third march is to go ahead tomorrow. NB Sadiq Khan: not in my name – and perhaps not in the name of millions of other London residents and economically-valuable visitors)
Mass murder in southern Israel seemed something to be celebrated last weekend along Piccadilly. Amid the carnival atmosphere, some of the white saviours on the Palestine Solidarity Campaign march even managed a quick flit around Fortnum and Mason.
Drums were banged, chants were chanted, and according to placards, vegan runners were for Palestine. So too was a London borough branch of Unison which followed the vegans, followed by several local branches of the National Education Union – raising questions about how the history of the Middle East is being taught in schools.
“Stop the Genocide.” “End the Occupation.” The dominant narrative on the placards was that all Gazans are helpless victims, lacking any moral agency. Of course, no-one in Gaza knows anything about the location of the hostages, or where the depraved perpetrators of the massacre might be found.
While the concurrent all-male Hizb ut-Tahrir demonstration outside the Egyptian and Turkish embassies prompted debate this week about the definition of “jihad”, overlooked is how the PSC procession was hate crime on an industrial scale.
The incitement of racial hatred has been illegal since the 1965 Race Relations Act, but the definition of hate crime has shifted. In recent years, it has been trivialised to become almost meaningless, reflected by the Police time wasted on Non-Crime Hate Incidents.
Adding to the muddle is the idea that hate can now be “perceived” as well as realised. Although 124,091 hate crimes were recorded in 2020/21, comparatively few were prosecuted. The mess is summed up by government guidance: “Terrorist offences may or may not be considered a hate crime depending on the circumstances.”
A rethink is demanded when the petty impolitesse of dead-naming is bracketed with incitement to genocide (“From the river to sea, Palestine will be free”). If hate crime and hate speech have been criminalised to promote fairness, personal safety and good community relations, the law has failed. Social cohesion, what social cohesion?
Instead of focusing on hate speech, Britain should be celebrating its tradition of free speech and the public’s right to peaceful protest, acknowledged in common law centuries before the European Convention. In recent weeks, these liberties have done us a favour, forcing us to confront some unpalatable social realities, not least abhorrent antisemitism.
The day after the PSC march, the October Declaration was launched. An online petition, it allows British citizens to condemn not just the acts of terrorism against Jews but to stand in solidarity with British Jews against all forms of antisemitism. So far, 50,000 have signed.
A recent piece by Sunday Times’ columnist Hadley Freedman was headlined “Unspeakable slaughter but I’ve seen nobody flying an Israeli flag”. She observed no-one, apart from Jews, seems to think it strange that Jewish schools and synagogues in Britain require extra security to keep them safe.
Signing an online petition is easy: few are asking themselves why putting a flag in a window publicly to signal support and sympathy for Britain’s Jewish community is so hard.
It has been an uncomfortable few weeks for those of us who have Jewish friends, who support the state of Israel and who reject claims about “colonisation” and “apartheid”, but who have shied away from small symbols of support, whether a lapel pin or a home-drawn flag.
The choice by the FA, Wembley Stadium, and individual football clubs not to show their support for the victims of the Hamas massacre is shameful. But it is hypocritical for us to tut-tut about football’s double standards while we keep our own heads down.
All those flags, benefit concerts, royal outfits in yellow and blue, even, by coincidence, the colour of the Coronation carpet in Westminster Abbey… Compared with the solidarity shown with Ukraine since February 2022, our reticence in the wake of the worse attack on Jewish people since the Holocaust is striking.
With Israel and Judaism intertwined, we can tell ourselves that displaying a flag with the Star of David on it might be trampling on sensitivities; our Jewish neighbours might misconstrue the gesture as cultural appropriation, after all.
We should own up: we don’t put a flag in our windows because we don’t want a brick through the glass. Equally, lapel pins are out: who wants to invite abuse? Intimidated, the silent majority are silenced; good people are doing nothing.
During Saturday’s march, a flare was set off, echoing around Piccadilly like gunfire. Like Lloyd-George’s shell star, it highlighted the state of the nation – an unhappy Britain divided against itself.