Everyone is entitled to an opinion, however stupid. And no country, community or generation has a monopoly on stupidity. In the Eighties there was a successful public information campaign to combat the spread of Aids with the catchphrase “Don’t die of ignorance”. If it were possible to actually die of ignorance, Britain would be as underpopulated today as it was after the Black Death. Too many of us are not just shy of a few facts, but living in a psychological fog in which facts are the enemy.
Why does this matter so much when we are gripped by anxiety over the war in Gaza spilling out across the region and the world? It matters because the seams of society will come undone if we base our opinions on lies. War in all its forms — the most terrible thing imaginable — is increasingly being understood within a narrative of complete fantasy by those without even basic facts at their disposal: and therefore Israel killed 1,400 of its own people on October 7 as a pretext to attack Gaza; Hamas are not terrorists but kindly freedom-loving rebels; the Houthis are bravely standing up to Israel by attacking international shipping; US and UK attacks on Houthis are at the behest of their Zionist masters. This is not hyperbole. This is what a lot of people in London and Glasgow and New York and California believe.
Social media is piled high with dumps of hot, steaming opinion, and among them are increasingly regular instances of pro-Palestine demonstrators who have a zero-tolerance approach to knowledge. A few days ago a 12-year-old boy interviewed a marcher who did not know that two million Arabs lived in Israel with full citizenship. She also claimed Israel created and finances Hamas. Her charming response to not knowing anything was to ask the boy if he was Jewish and a Zionist.
There are countless examples of such cretinism. The week before we saw footage of a woman in a London park screaming at a man who had tried to stop someone taking down pictures of Israeli hostages. She called him a “f***ing Jew” and repeatedly shouted that he was “committing genocide”, which must have been news to him. This is the age of the digital blood libel.
If British Jews are held responsible for genocide, at some point the rhetoric will mutate into ‘retaliation’
One smarty-pants outside the British Museum said Zionists wanted to “rule the world” and that they had “secret powers”. On the same march, a man said there was no such thing as Israel and the region had only ever been Palestine. He had obviously never heard of the Ottoman Empire. Another man said Britain’s political parties were “Zionist-controlled entities”. If British Jews are held personally responsible for genocide, then at some point rhetoric will mutate into twisted “retaliation”.
The idea that October 7 was a false flag operation is particularly prevalent. At a march in London a couple of weeks ago, a placard read “America Israel done 7 October attacks to take Iran’s oil like Iraq Libya”. As if the grammar wasn’t bad enough. On another march a protester said, “The people have taken to the streets week after week since October 7”. Since Israeli forces didn’t enter Gaza until October 28, that’s quite a Freudian slip. What do such people say to their children?
Interviews conducted with American protesters outside the Sundance Film Festival in Utah reveal a familiar pattern. Asked which sea was referenced in the chant “from the river to the sea” the two recorded responses were the Red Sea and the Black Sea. One protester said Hamas was not in Gaza and another didn’t know there were any hostages. One confidently asserted Israel bans Palestinians from eating chocolate or wearing wedding dresses. Finally, a marcher was asked what she meant by the words on her placard. “I don’t know,” she said. “Someone gave it to me.” These numbskulls were matched in videos of British protesters last year who admitted they had never heard of the October 7 attacks and that they were not sufficiently educated to know why they were marching. And the hilarity of the “Queers for Palestine” collective doesn’t even need explaining.
None of this craziness prohibits criticism of Israel. One perspective on this nightmarish situation can, theoretically, be as valid as another. It should be possible to hold Israel to account for the war in Gaza without the need for insane conspiracies and racism disguised as compassion.
As well as the fact-averse, there are also fact-evaders. Public figures making statements on Holocaust Memorial Day in which they deliberately avoid mentioning Jews or suggesting a false equivalency between the systematic murder of six million Jews and the war in Gaza is a very sneaky kind of ignorance, especially when accompanied by the “I apologise for any offence caused” pivot.
There are more and more people who assume the society in which they live is always criminal and anyone outside it is always virtuous. To hate the West is the surest way to destroy it. We won’t even need a war. If you know nothing about the cause for which you belong so vehemently then you are capable of believing anything. And if you can believe anything, then anything can happen. Then no one is safe, including you. As our lawyers say, ignorance is no defence.
George Chesterton is the Evening Standard’s executive editor