Lessons on Empathy from Scotland for those Stoking Hate in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Anyone who has followed the heartbreaking events in Gaza this month would be justified in thinking that, for all the recent and now dashed hopes of rapprochement, the Palestinians and the Israelis are locked in a cycle of enmity as predictable and inevitable as the tides. Madrid, Oslo, Wye River, Camp David, Taba, Beirut, Obama’s “New Beginning,” Washington, the Abbas plan, Trump’s “Prosperity” vision: over the past 30 years, peace plans and roadmaps, frequently brokered by the US, have come and gone. Each has been planted in hope and some have blossomed briefly, but all have ultimately withered in the salted soil of Palestine.

Nevertheless, as an uneasy ceasefire brought an end to 11 consecutive days of horror, world leaders are somehow once again finding the confidence to detect embers of hope in the smoldering ruins of Gaza. US president Joe Biden hailed what he saw as a “genuine opportunity to make progress.” Now, said UN secretary-general António Guterres, leaders in Israel and Palestine had a responsibility “to start a serious dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict.”


Everyone, from the schoolchildren of Gaza and Israel to their elders and leaders, knows the root causes of the conflict. During the First World War, Britain secretly gifted Palestine as a “national home” to the Jewish people, which in turn led to the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent (and ongoing) displacement of Arabs from their ancestral homelands.

This is history. Fair or unfair, it cannot be undone. Israel is here to stay.

What can be done, however, is for ordinary people on both sides of the divide to take it upon themselves to rise above the poisonous narratives imposed by self-serving politicians interested not in the peaceful coexistence of human beings, but in exploiting artificial differences for the benefit of their own political ambitions.

Last week, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was openly accused of having attacked Gaza to divert attention away from his “domestic challenges” in a cynical bid to stay in power. Certainly, it is difficult to see how any leader could have authorized horror on the scale that was unleashed upon Gaza this month. Whatever the merits of either side’s position, the imbalance of power between the Palestinians of Gaza and the Israeli state is evident in the grim accounting for the 11 days of violence: 12 Israelis lost their lives, but 230 Palestinians, including more than 60 children, lost theirs.

Hamas, too, its power derived from the perpetuating of anti-Semitic tropes and the fighting of wars long ended, shoulders an equal burden of responsibility for the seemingly endless cycle of hate and distrust that hurts the people it claims to represent more than anyone else.

It isn’t hard to demonize people, even our close neighbors, to present them as a threat to our way of life. Politicians everywhere resort to this shameful tactic to stay in power.

There is no better example of this demonizing of others than the disgraceful scapegoating of foreigners in general and refugees in particular that preceded Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – a vote cast by many in the misguided belief that all their problems could be blamed on people who didn’t look, speak or pray like them.

Resisting this kind of manipulation isn’t easy, as the calamity of Palestine has demonstrated for generations. But it is possible, as a remarkable event 4,000 kilometers away from Gaza showed earlier this month.

In 2016, the city of Glasgow in Scotland rejected the anti-foreigner propaganda of the Leave campaign and voted overwhelmingly for Britain to remain in the EU. This month, the city demonstrated the kind of human empathy that informed that vote when a large, mostly white, crowd turned out to prevent the deportation of two of their Indian neighbors, a chef and a mechanic, who had lived in the area for years but were suspected of being illegal immigrants.

The protest, and the successful freeing of the men from custody, took place on Kenmure Street in Pollokshields, a predominantly white, working-class area of the city with a sizable Indian and Pakistani population. Just the sort of area, if one were to indulge in stereotyping, that might have been expected to respond to the dog-whistle propaganda of the Brexit campaign.

Instead, hundreds of locals rallied to the support of two men they saw not as aliens, but as part of their community, first freeing them from a UK Border Agency detention van, and then escorting them to a local mosque, where they were reunited with friends and family. Even the police, who made it clear they were on hand only to ensure public safety, declined to intervene.

Later, the two men and their families spoke of their astonishment and gratitude for the support they had received from the community.

Glasgow is not Gaza, of course, and the UK is not Israel. But what the miracle on Kenmure Street showed is that people have an innate ability to recognize the fundamental humanity in each other. Left to their own devices – left to live, work and play alongside each other in the pursuit of simple, everyday happiness – communities from dramatically different backgrounds can not only become one, but can find the strength to resist the attempts of politicians and governments to drive them apart.

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.