Brendan Cox and Sunder Katwala: How can charities ease community tension?

With the war in Gaza fuelling divisions in UK communities, we need to do more than just cross our fingers and hope everything will be OK

Many of us are watching news of the escalating conflict in the Middle East with a sense of horror, powerlessness and dread.

Horror because of the human toll, powerlessness because our influence is clearly limited, and dread because we can see the divisions it is stoking within our communities.

While most organisations feel unable to contribute to ‘solving’ the crisis, there are practical things that we can all do to help deal with community tensions here in Britain.

Getting this right can be hard, so here we set our five principles that might underpin this work.

1. Understand the challenge of polarisation over the conflict – and resist the temptation to avoid engaging

The challenge is not that the Middle East conflict splits British society down the middle. A broad majority empathise with the civilian casualties while preferring not to take sides.

Others do sympathise more with Israel or Palestine – about a fifth of the public on each side.

Many, although not all, British Jews and British Muslims have some sense of allegiance to Israel or Palestine, but each is a minority among the 10 million people who lean towards each side.

Avoidance can be a natural instinct in the face of heated and polarised arguments about a complex conflict.

But if the majority leans out, it will leave only those with the strongest views in our debates, making them more polarised.

That will make it harder to build the bridges that we need.

2. It is fine to take a ‘side’ – as long as you recognise that there are two sides

Mutual empathy can be a positive bridging ethos – but we should also be clear that it is a legitimate choice to identify more with one ‘side’, as long as you do recognise that there are two sides.

Those ‘side-takers’ who can do this can play a crucial role in protecting community relations here, especially if willing to do something challenging: to hold their own side to the standards and boundaries they demand of the other side, especially on prejudice and hatred.

3. We need to have zero tolerance for hate crime. But we shouldn’t just respond to it – we can help prevent it

We know that those who carry out hate crimes or terror attacks often seek ‘social licence’ from their peers before carrying out the attacks.

At times when peer groups seem willing to countenance, excuse or praise violence, it encourages extremists to take that step.

Conversely, by building a strong consensus in all communities against acts of violence and prejudice, we can deny the extremists the social licence they seek and dramatically shrink the pool of potential attackers.

That requires everyone to have the confidence to challenge extreme views, especially when they are from your own side.

4. To get boundaries right we need to ‘call in’ as well as ‘call out’

A useful rule when seeking a broad consensus to protect boundaries against prejudice is to always state what should be permitted before drawing the line about what we need to exclude.

For example, it cannot be antisemitic to criticise the Israeli government – in a manner similar to criticising military action by the US or Britain – but it is prejudiced to hold British Jews responsible for Israel’s response.

It is legitimate to put the conflict into historical context, but never to legitimise the murder of civilians.

It is legitimate to challenge protesters who deny Israel’s right to exist but not to define all protests for peace or the recognition of Palestine as inherently hateful.

The exact boundaries may be contested – but a good faith attempt to define them helps create space to legitimately police the boundaries.

This means placing more emphasis on “calling in” as well as “calling out”.

Young people shaping their formative views of the world need to be supported in how to express their views, not just be told what must be off-limits.

Enabling democratic speech and eradicating toxic prejudices can go together.

The best test of all as to whether a conversation about a contested issue does display mutual respect is whether it would continue in the presence of a member of the ‘out group’.

Many people would intuitively understand this if that person were actually in the room.

Observing this principle would help to keep the advocacy of personal views within boundaries of mutual respect – on campuses, in workplaces and online.

5. Crises catalyse action – but we need to recognise the opportunity to move beyond crisis response

At its best, Britain is one of the most successful multi-ethnic democracies in the world.

But heightened moments when our tensions come to the fore can make this feel like a much more anxious and conflicted society than any of us would want.

Helping to navigate these pressures speaks to the core ethos of what civic society is for.

Many organisations and networks across civic society can play different roles, but may need help with the confidence and capacity of how to make a constructive contribution.

Governments have tended to respond to crises or riots, but long-term work on cohesion and connection has tended to fall away once the crisis is over.

Civil society organisations can help to keep that important work going once the attention of the media and politicians shifts elsewhere.

We need to do more than cross our fingers and hope things will work out OK.

This crisis can catalyse commitment to the practical agenda that could help our plural society navigate difficult conversations about how we live together well.

Sunder Katwala is director of the think tank British Future. Brendan Cox is co-founder of the Together Coalition.

Together is organising a webinar on 13 November to discuss what organisations can do to help address community tensions.

To find out more or to join the webinar, send an email to

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