There is no doubting the grief or the rage of Jewish and Muslim communities across Britain in response to events in Israel and Gaza. Of course it is not only they who have strong reactions to what is happening. Many other people are also horrified. But for obvious reasons emotions in the two faith communities are running high – particularly among those with family or other personal connections to the victims.
These feelings are an important aspect of the international response. But indications of rising hostility and distrust between those whose affinities lie on opposing sides of the conflict should concern us all. Jewish people are understandably nervous about the risk that they will be targeted. Two Jewish schools were forced to close in the days after 7 October, and the Community Security Trust recorded 89 antisemitic incidents in just over four days.
Police must be extra vigilant in protecting both communities. In London alone police recorded 218 antisemitic offences from 1-18 October this year, compared with 15 in the same period last year. Islamophobic offences, said the Met, over the same period were also up, from 42 in 2022 to 103. London’s Jewish population is a little over a tenth of the capital’s Muslim population.
While recorded hate crimes overall fell in the year to March 2023, religiously motivated ones rose by 9%, giving cause for alarm even before this war. Members of both communities are scared.
But criminality is not the only issue. Widening divisions and the risk of increased segregation must also be addressed. For public sector organisations, including councils, fostering good relations between different groups is an obligation. But efforts to build bridges – or at least to maintain those that already exist – should be made not only because the law says so but because they are a vital part of our social infrastructure.
In particular, young people in schools and elsewhere must be protected from discrimination and helped to avoid the kinds of polarisation and misinformation that are familiar from other conflicts, but have been supercharged by social media. After Hindu-Muslim clashes in Leicester last year, local leaders pointed to inflammatory social media content – and its algorithmic amplification – as one of the main causes. Years of community work were undermined when emotions were whipped up online and by those seeking trouble from outside the city – who accounted for half of all arrests made.
Similar dynamics it appears are now in play, with reports of Jewish pupils subjected to online harassment. Muslims often face online racism for mundane aspects of their religion. Such hatred, whether on the web or off it, is a problem for society. Ministers chose not to act on warnings from experts in 2021 that extremists would exploit free speech laws to cause tensions. Hostility on the basis of difference is not permitted in law. Where it manifests itself in inflammatory speech it is illegal and not protected by freedom of speech. It should be dealt with immediately. The Online Safety Act hands the policing of such boundaries to social media platforms – and it remains to be seen if this will work.
Trade unions, charities and human rights groups also have a role to play. The different perspectives on what is going on in Israel and Gaza are real. But the values of trust and understanding that a diverse society needs, in order to thrive, must not fall by the wayside.