Aaron Cohen-Gold
Deputy Director, ELNET UK

The State of a Nation: Reading the Room in London

Pro-Palestinian protests in London. Image owned by Henry Nicholls/AFP.
Pro-Palestinian protests in London. Image owned by Henry Nicholls/AFP.

As we approach eight months of war in the Middle East and mark Israel’s 76th Independence Day, our many personal screens are replete with the evidence of unprecedented polarisation. In the social media age where old conspiracy theories and tropes have been repackaged to again inspire the hatred of Jews as glossy, conspiratorial and shareable TikTok content, some of our country’s most vulnerable communities feel under the kind of threat not experienced in decades. As the military conflict in Gaza and Israel bleeds into a digital and algorithmic propaganda war, it doesn’t take long to see that the medieval child-killer libel against Jews has returned, redesigned, to the mainstream. Similarly, the debased and racist assumption that all Arabs are Jihadists can be found on the opposite end of the social media spectrum.

The results are shocking. Between the October 7 attack and New Years Day 2024, there were more than 2,000 anti-Jewish incidents reported in the UK alone; and incidents of anti-Semitism in the UK’s now social media-savvy schools have tripled since 2022. On the ‘reverse’ side, between the October 7 Hamas attacks and February 2024, there were more than 2,000 anti-Muslim incidents reported in the UK. While the Muslim population of the UK is several times larger than that of their Jewish neighbours, the impact of this surge is no less profound.

But what do these shocking incidents tell us, if anything, about the British public’s attitude toward Israel and the region? Are these incidents symptomatic of a major trend toward polarisation and hatred or do they instead reflect an emboldened minority, unrepresentative of broader, more nuanced public attitudes?

One good place to start is YouGov, the British Polling firm who regularly canvass – perhaps more than anyone else – public attitudes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their findings are surprising and instructive. Last month, YouGov conducted its latest monthly survey of almost 4,000 representative UK adults. It found that 28% of the British public supported the Palestinian side, 16% the Israeli side, 22% both sides equally and 34% who didn’t know. In other words, almost six in ten Britons don’t know who to support or simply refuse to support one side over another. The British public are only narrow split on favouring either side and seem unexpectedly uncertain with regards to this conflict.

And if we dig a little more deeply into other recent surveys, the statistics are even more interesting. As YouGov’s Head of Data Journalism recently outlined, March’s equivalent survey found that only 11% of the pro-Palestinian UK population considered Hamas ‘favourably’, only 14% thought October 7 was ‘justified’, while an overwhelming 83% supported the ‘two state solution’.  Almost half acknowledged ‘some sympathy’ for the Israeli victims of October 7.

What does this tell us? The values and anti-Semitic positions espoused by Hamas are wildly unpopular in the UK, even among many pro-Palestinian voters. While there may well be a wilful or naïve understanding about what those positions are and why they’re hurtful to Jewish people, when spelt out, the broader public have little to no truck with Palestinian extremism. Perhaps they are turned off by the huge rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes associated with the minority who do entertain these attitudes. There’s a call to action in these figures too: if Israel is prepared to invest its energy into retelling its own story, including the fundamental role of Palestinian extremism in fermenting and sustaining the conflict, there may well be a UK audience willing to hear it and listen.

Of course, this is only half the picture. While tracker polls from early in the year showed the ‘gap’ between the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian sides narrowing, the near-constant news out of Gaza has worsened this picture. Indeed, early last month YouGov found substantial support – again almost six in ten – for a UK arms embargo on Israel for the remainder of this war. Contradictory? Maybe. But we should be honest enough to acknowledge that while a majority of the British public – and even the pro-Palestinian population within it – are deeply hostile toward Hamas and its values, there is also a majority of the British public deeply uneasy about Israel’s operation in Gaza. Perhaps they don’t understand its complexity, perhaps they do but want no part in it, perhaps they are part of the small minority who support Hamas, or perhaps, more likely, they share Israel’s right to go after Hamas but believe the price on civilians has been too high. One can surely comprehend all bar one of these standpoints. Addressing them requires empathy and understanding. Even taking this into account, the British public’s overall attitude toward this conflict is rather more nuanced than we might instinctively believe. There is certainly more to it than the inflammatory slogans we hear on the streets of London each week.

As Israel approaches its 76th birthday, the vitriolic and often racist rhetoric of Israel’s harshest critics may be louder than ever. Attacks on Jewish people are clearly rising and need to be called out. However, these views remain in the minority and they are not yet capturing the hearts and minds of the British public. If we take these polls as an accurate reflection of UK opinion, we find at least two fundamental challenges to grapple with in the years ahead: a substantial need to better tell the Israel and Israeli-Palestinian story, and the need to have the openness, empathy and honesty of recognising the pain caused to Palestinians as well as Israelis in this conflict. With Israel so widely perceived to be the powerfull and the Palestinians so widely perceived to be the powerless, these are critical and realpolitik tasks if UK-Israel relations are to broaden through more of British society. Clarity and empathy is the clear path forward. The opportunity is there, if only it can be grasped.

About the Author
Aaron Cohen-Gold is the Deputy Director of ELNET UK, which works to improve and expand UK-Israel-Europe relations. He previously worked as a Political Affairs consultant for the MHP Group (a leading UK communications agency), as Government Affairs Manager at the University of Cambridge, and for three Members of Parliament. He is also serving terms on the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps & Board of Deputies of British Jews.
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