OPINION - We must stop the Israel-Palestine culture war weaponising London's schoolchildren


If the prevailing attitude in the culture war over Gaza is essentially adolescent — war is bad, so please stop — it explains why the cause is so appealing to children. Israeli and in particular Palestinian children have been subjected to the horrors of an actual war and just like those in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria or Sudan, they do not have the luxury of taking sides in a conflict happening thousands of miles away. In the West, and acutely in London, children are being exposed to the moral and political hypocrisy of their parents, while the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-effect of TikTok misinformation has doubled down on prejudice and historical conspiracies.

When it comes to schoolchildren supporting Palestine, the attack by Hamas on October 7 (let alone the complex and contested history of the region) is an inconvenience best avoided, lest it obstruct moral certainty about the oppressors and the oppressed. Allyship with terrorists and theocrats is quickly glossed over. Embattled Jewish children too are being conditioned to harden their hearts to the suffering of others. There is a distinction between the emerging political awareness of a child and their politicisation, and what we are witnessing is the latter. The problem isn’t supporting Palestine or Israel, it is doing so without question or thought.

It’s a reasonable assumption that even now three-quarters of British adults still couldn’t find Gaza on a map let alone have a cogent grasp of what the hell is going on over there, so it’s also a safe bet their children couldn’t either. In London, religion certainly plays a significant part in the anti-Israel majority among teenagers, the other being habitual good-causers and anger fetishists. It’s tempting to say complete indifference has never seemed so attractive, but history has already shown us where that gets you. If this is a numbers game, Jews are a small minority inherently vulnerable to a generational shift of opinion against them. ’Twas ever thus.

Children draw Palestinian flags on their hands, as if this cause has become just another youthful fixation

In secondary schools, children draw Palestinian flags on their hands en masse. It’s as if this cause has become just another youthful fixation, like Nineties fashion or bubble tea.

One of my daughters reports that her Year Five classmates ask her whose side she is on while others state the war is “Israel’s fault”. Perhaps this will all dissipate with age, but it’s likely the residue of this compulsive credo will remain in the adult world views of many thousands. Since our culture has not yet found a convincing way to clearly disassociate being anti-war with being anti-Jewish, that is an alarming prospect.

Jewish children, especially in state schools, must confront the realisation that their personal identity and perhaps mere existence are now live political “problems”. It rather makes a mockery of the prevailing youthful obsession with acceptance and tolerance when children are sucked into a politics of the most antagonistic, polarising and at times hateful kind.

Teenage piety is among the purest beliefs of all, having so little experience or knowledge to temper it. It would be preferable for teenagers to take out their performative rage against their parents, rather than learn it from them. We can’t blame TikTok exclusively — these attitudes start in the home. White working-class and lower middle-class children of the Seventies and Eighties have had the poison of their home-learnt racism against black, Hindu and Muslim communities slowly drawn out of them over generations (and that process is very much unfinished). Are we now welcoming such bitterness back into society with antisemitism?

It’s understandable why some children, especially those becoming politically aware in their middle teens, would feel attracted to a cause framed as so simplistically righteous. The problem with this is twofold: firstly, the lines between anti-war, pro-Palestine, pro-Hamas, anti-Israel and antisemitism are blurred beyond the wit of most adults: secondly, the politicisation of our children over this crisis stores trouble up for later. Like other culture war issues (some life or death, some not) attitudes to the war in Gaza insist on a binary response. It is demanded that you take a side and that this decision is always morally defining. I wouldn’t want my children to assume there is an easy answer to every problem or that they will be judged with fire and brimstone if they don’t follow the crowd.

The whole point of being a teenager is that it is the first opportunity not to conform, yet this issue has captivated a generation who believe unquestionable subjectivity is morally superior to accuracy and openness. It is now an act of teenage rebellion to say Israel has a right to defend itself. As for primary school children, stick to gross American candy. You have got the rest of your lives to be wrong about politics. Trust me, right now you’re better off not knowing.

George Chesterton is the Evening Standard’s executive editor