THE BLOG

A Pause, But We Are All Extremists Now

15/08/2014 12:03 BST | Updated 13/10/2014 10:59 BST

In Gaza, there is the lull of extended ceasefire. Before either the violence ramps up again, or this conflict like so many others slips from our collective consciousness, perhaps it is a good time for us in the UK also to take a deep, reflective breath. Because the problem with all the black and white of the past month is that there's been no room for grey. The grey middle-ground, inevitably, where truth and possibility lies.

But conflict in Gaza never fails to elicit two stark reactions; whether the people who hold them are political or not, whether they know the facts or not, whether or not they are aware of their own blind extremism. I use the word 'extremism' advisedly: across both mainstream and social media, normally reasonable people have been pushed or have leaped willingly into zealous stances that destroy discussion.

Even as I write, I can hear my own feet shuffling towards that defensive, impulsive, excessive position.

Because from my corner, I have seen the anti-Israel mob - a congregation of fanatical Muslims, self-righteous students, or bleeding-hearted liberals whose hearts tellingly fail to bleed for the victims of IS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, or in fact any organisation other than Israel. It is this hypocrisy - and not criticism of Israel as people so often claim - that makes Jewish people suspect an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. That, and the banners waved in British streets declaring that 'Hitler was Right'. Across the UK there has been a sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents - a rabbi assaulted in Gateshead, bricks through synagogue windows in Belfast, a gang crying 'Heil Hitler' and pelting pedestrians as they drove through a Jewish area in Manchester. This before we even mention the Tricycle Theatre. In Paris Jewish-owned shops were burned and pillaged, while a Belgian café posted a sign stating no Jews allowed. Meanwhile well-meaning celebrities lent their voices to declare that Israel is conducting genocide. The invocation of this inflammatory word is no subtle reference to the Holocaust, and not only does it do a disservice to the real genocides taking place across the world - June saw us remembering the horrific case of Rwanda, and even now we watch it unfolding in Syria and Iraq - but it fails to acknowledge that while Israel targets those seeking its destruction (not genocide), Hamas is the group with a declared pledge to wipe Israel off the map and kill all Jews everywhere.

But such trivialities have seemed unimportant to most news sources who, in the UK at least, fan the anti-Israel flames as they continue to report a one-sided account of the conflict. Stubbornly they refuse to acknowledge facts: for instance, if Hamas had used half their aid-provided materials to build shelters for their people instead of tunnels, then their civilians would have a safe haven now. Or, they bury halfway down an article pretty relevant details such as the calls by Hamas for Gazan civilians to remain in buildings Israel have expressly warned them to evacuate. Or else they employ just enough scepticism - 'Israel claim' - to negate the importance of information such as Hamas making civilian sites military targets by firing rockets from their roofs.

But...

All this may be true but, yet, there was an alternative. There is always an alternative.

Beneath the propaganda war, there is a real war, and the desire to explain Israel's actions in the face of so much hatred does not excuse ostrich behaviour. Israel may have been under attack, there may have been a strong imperative to act - but it did not have to act like this. Stored weapons may make legitimate targets out of schools. But they are still schools. The rights and wrongs of war cannot be measured by body count. But the bodies do count. They must.

And though some Jewish people may believe that now, amidst such loathing, is a moment to support and not criticise Israel, perhaps the reverse is true. Perhaps it is the most important time to raise a questioning voice. Because while over the past weeks my Facebook stream has been half-full of anti-Israel rants, the other half was teeming with indignant justification. Israel hasn't occupied Gaza since 2005! (screamed one): but it maintains closed borders and exited unilaterally to prevent being pressured by the international community to leave in a more meaningful way. Another said Israel left Gazans with the greenhouses to secure a flourishing economy: but it restricted exports from the very first harvest. A third said the fence was necessary to prevent suicide bombings: but without even wading into the morality of collective punishment, Israel also conveniently incorporated a large area of prime farmland onto its side. The list goes on. Israeli policies have a great deal to answer for in the long game. And while Hamas is undoubtedly a brutal, fanatical enemy that any state would struggle to deal with better, we must nevertheless urge Israel to undertake that struggle.

Last week, a Jewish friend of mine was accosted in a shopping centre by four Muslim youths who told him that they were going to "finish the job Hitler started". Friends I went to school with continue to 'defriend' each other on Facebook for their contrasting views. The conflation of Israeli and Jew is excusing vile racism with the outpouring of an unnerving, sickening anti-Semitism. (Far too late, the media has woken up to this aspect of the conflict, and it is yet to acknowledge the role it has played in creating it.) But in turn, such anti-Semitism has been excusing a stubborn, unhelpful and un-nuanced dogma from the pro-Israel minority. If even so many miles away we are unable to un-dig ourselves from our respective trenches, what chance is there for those locked so tightly into the tragic cycle of hatred and oppression and another war?

I still believe Britain, deep down, to be a tolerant and fair-minded society. But it is time for all of us, and especially the media, to take responsibility for the extremism that has whipped this country into a dangerous frenzy. It is time that we took a breath and remembered that nothing is black and white. It is time that we made just a little room for grey.