Palestine Solidarity Campaign is deeply concerned by the statement issued by Gavin Williamson to all Headteachers advising them how to deal with pupils bringing concerns about recent events in Palestine/Israel into the classroom.
We recognise the duties of schools and colleges to ensure impartiality when facilitating political discussions in the classroom. We also believe that schools and colleges have a fundamental role in a democratic society to provide young people with the information required to understand the world around them and their role as citizens within it. This role includes teaching young people how to discern the difference between fact and opinion. It also means helping them develop the values fundamental to functioning within a democratic society – including an understanding of the issues of rights, justice and unequal distributions of power.
Facilitating discussion about Palestine/Israel needs to adhere to these principles and be rooted in a framework of respect for the facts of history and for international law and human rights. Over the past few weeks we have seen schools and colleges fail to adhere to these principles in their response to pupils raising their concerns regarding the injustices they see being perpetrated upon the Palestinian people. We have seen incidents of children being reprimanded, suspended and harangued by school leaders for expressing entirely legitimate views. We have also seen suggestions that the display of the Palestinian flag should be regarded as an inherently antisemitic act. Such responses by schools and colleges are undoubtedly encouraged by a climate generated by the Government’s ‘Prevent’ policy and the flawed framework it has developed for tackling antisemitism. Prevent training has included suggestions that pupils advocating for Palestinian rights is something requiring monitoring as though peaceful concern for human rights was a pre-cursor to terrorism. The Government has also continued to promulgate the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has been widely criticised as conflating antisemitism with legitimate criticism of Israel for its violations of international law. The Government has also made clear its intention to introduce legislation that would prohibit the right of public bodies to divest from companies complicit in supporting Israel’s violations of international law and human rights, with rhetoric making clear that it regards such actions as antisemitic.
Respect for the facts of history and for international law should include allowing pupils to understand the position of independent human rights monitoring organisations such as UNOCHA, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem. It should also include allowing full discussion of why Palestinian civil society launched a call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), the historical parallels for such action, and the arguments for and against such a tactic being employed.
The statement from Gavin Williamson taken in the context of the cited previous statements and government actions makes clear that schools are being encouraged to suppress such discussions in favour of narratives that regard the situation as one of conflict between two peoples who have simply failed to understand each other. Such narratives, which emphasise the need for building individual relationships between Palestinians and Israelis whilst sidelining the requirements of international law and human rights standards in reality support the status quo by avoiding tackling the causes of “conflict”.
We support the rights of all students to raise issues of social and international justice and to campaign on behalf of the rights of oppressed peoples across the world. Further, we actively encourage young people to become involved at an early age in human rights campaigning and welcome the fact that recent huge demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people here in the UK were populated by very large numbers of young people. Such political engagement by the youth, generated by their concern about ongoing egregious rights abuses should be welcomed by everyone who holds a genuine interest in fostering healthy democratic structures.
Indeed, while the duty of impartiality falls on schools, students themselves have the right to raise and campaign on fundamental issues of justice and injustice that they believe the government and wider society is not adequately addressing. Indeed, students have done this throughout British history, including as part of the anti-fascist movement in the 1970s, opposition to the Iraq War, campaigning against the introduction of University tuition fees, and as a key part of the recent climate justice movement.
We call upon Gavin Williamson to retract his statement. We call upon the Government to make clear that it does not support and indeed condemns statements by school leaders that foment anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia including suggestions that displaying the Palestinian flag should be regarded as a racist act. We further call upon the Government to cease actions that aim to curtail the right of all citizens, including children and young people, to advocate for justice, for the promotion of human rights and against violations of international law no matter who is responsible for those violations.