Havering Council’s decision to cancel celebrations for the upcoming festival of Hanukkah — and then rapidly u-turn — is a good example of how not to navigate community relations in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.
That’s not because the risks faced by Jewish communities are imagined. The Met Police found that antisemitic hate crimes in the UK have risen dramatically in the initial aftermath of October 7th. The stories of Jewish businesses vandalised, Jewish children unable to go to school, and Jewish students unsafe on university campuses have undoubtedly left many in the Jewish community feeling shaken and scared. The risks and threats that Jewish communities are facing are real.
In my view Havering Council’s decision was a mistake because it ultimately meant bowing down to the designs of hateful extremists — something which is no way to navigate community tensions. The laser-like focus of Havering’s Council leaders should have been to find a way to make the start of the Hanukkah celebration safe and there should have been no question as to whether that public celebration should have gone ahead. The Jewish community in both Havering and elsewhere has a right to expect the solidarity Hanukkah provides — even more so given the last two months. Our politicians and officials have a responsibility to make sure that’s what happens.
It’s also because that’s what the public expects of their leaders. This week, More in Common launched the most comprehensive exploration of British public opinion on the Israel-Hamas war and the fallout here in the UK since it began two months ago. The overarching message we heard is that the public are frustrated that those who shout the loudest are dominating the public debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Our research shows that politicians and other community leaders need to be more proactive in navigating the fallout from the war here at home. It’s a mistake to seek to try and triangulate between those at the extremes, whether the minority of pro-Palestinian activists trying to stir up antisemitism, or the far right trying to exploit the situation to encourage anti-Muslim hate. Instead, community leaders should listen more to how the public sees this conflict and what it means for us in the UK.
Britain is far from split into two binary camps
Our polling and focus groups find that Britain is far from split into two binary camps between those who "side" with Israel and those who "side" with Palestine. Most Britons find themselves disgusted at the actions of murderous Hamas terrorists, concerned for civilians in Israel and Gaza, and deeply worried about what this means for community relations here in the UK.
These insights should guide how politicians, protest leaders and activists handle the challenges of the coming months. We found Britons support the rights of supporters on both sides of this conflict to protest but also think there should be limits to that protest and that those marches which either glorify terrorism or produce antisemitic or anti-Muslim hate should have no place on our streets.
Pro-Palestinian protest leaders need to do more to prevent a small group of protestors from hijacking the majority of protestors' desire for peace. Politicians need to do better with their job to ease community tensions, not unnecessarily raising them by tarring all protestors with the same brush. And the police need to handle more effectively rising antisemitism and the threat from the far-right stirring up anti-Muslim hate.
And more than anything else our schools and universities need to do a better job at supporting young people in this conflict. In our research, we spoke to young people directly and heard their worries for fellow students who were being bullied, or how they were being pressured to take a side. Nearly half told us they had already seen misinformation on social media. These young people deserve better. Rather than cancelling religious celebrations, teachers, politicians and council leaders need to do more to make our educational institutions places where young people can learn to understand the views of others, how to express their views better and feel comfortable not having to choose a side.
How British society navigates the Israel-Hamas War matters. Too much of what we hear from politicians, protest organisers and activists is at best reductive, and at worst actively inflammatory. Our research shows we must guard against dividing the country into stark and false binaries and ceding the debate to the loudest voices. The way to do that is by fostering good community relations and standing by those facing hate, rather than running scared from bullies.