COMMENT: Cracking down on hate speech won’t tackle ignorance at its root

How many times have you uttered something with absolute certainty, only to find out later you were wrong? And how often have you joined in with the criticism of others, before feeling embarrassed by your judgment?

One shows our tendency to mask ignorance with confidence, the other our propensity to cruel herd mentality. Both are devastating when applied to hate speech.

Last week the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism proposed to ban people who spread racial hatred on social media sites, in the same way as sex offenders. This followed a report from the Community Security Trust (CST) revealing that anti-Semitic incidents in the UK have reached their peak since records began. There were 1,168 attacks last year – more than double the previous year’s total of 535. Labour responded with plans for people convicted of racial, homophobic or disability hate crimes to be put on a ‘black list’ visible to prospective employers.

While a step in the right direction, neither of these measures addresses the root of the problem. The CST says that the spike in anti-Semitic attacks is fuelled by the summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict – a similar wave followed Israel’s 2009 offensive in Gaza. The same surge has occurred in Austria and France, where local Jewish organisations have also reported a doubling of attacks. Last month, four Jews were killed at a kosher supermarket in Paris. Yesterday, a Jewish man was shot outside a synagogue in Copenhagen. These are extreme examples, but at the other end of the spectrum is the everyday anti-Semitism that is rife online. The hashtag ‘#HitlerWasRight’ trended worldwide in July and a fifth of the 1,168 UK incidents reported occurred on Facebook or Twitter.

However extremist and irrational, we need to tackle the root of this prejudice by starting in our own backyard. People are angry at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Many forget that Israel does not equal Jews. George Galloway had the sense to clarify this last week, after he was accused on a particularly passionate Question Time of inciting anti-Semitism by conflating the two.

Jews are not homogenous. Some are Zionists, but many feel uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s government and abhor the repression of Palestinians. Surveys by the Institute for Jewish Police and Research show that Jewish ambivalence towards Israel has increased, reflected by organisations like ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ charity Yachad and Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

So how do we tackle these dangerous assumptions that fuel so much hate? Banning online abusers will help, but it won’t deal with the ignorance and tribalism at the heart of the issue. The only way to beat entrenched racism is through education and grassroots relationship building. People won’t empathise with the plurality of views on Zionism, Islam or free speech if they are siloed in faith schools or insular communities. The government should be investing more in interfaith initiatives, multi-faith schools and bold religious and political education. Naming, shaming and jailing racists gets to the issue far too late – sometimes when lives have been lost.

I knew nothing about Israel or anti-Semitism until I got a job at a Jewish community newspaper. I had a vaguely Christian upbringing and my leftie liberal friends are vocally anti-Israel, as is my father, who recently returned from a volunteering stint in Palestine. I was pre-disposed towards the anti-Israel stance, despite being unclear on the facts. Only after cautious questions to new Jewish colleagues and a life-changing visit to Auschwitz did I begin to understand the pro-Israel side. I still didn’t agree with it, but I could at least grasp its reasons, history and context. Crucially, it informed me enough to call out people on Facebook who equated the treatment of Gazans to the Holocaust.

People are too quick to jump on a bandwagon of hate. Politicians must crack down on hate speech, but it won’t bring an end to anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, which are flourishing due to ignorance and prejudice. Prevention is better than cure. Paltry as they may seem in the face of racist murders, the opportunities to befriend others in our ethnically diverse cities are enough to bridge major voids in understanding. You could just be the link that reverses someone’s bigotry.



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