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School Pupils Face Sanctions for Supporting Palestine

New research uncovers 49 cases where school pupils and staff face detention, suspension and even expulsion after showing solidarity with Palestine during May’s conflict

A nine-year-old Palestinian girl attends a Palestine solidarity march in London, 2019. Photo: Bjanka Kadic/Alamy

School Pupils Face Sanctions for Supporting Palestine

New research uncovers 49 cases where school pupils and staff face detention, suspension and even expulsion after showing solidarity with Palestine during May’s conflict

School students expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause have been targeted with verbal reprimands, suspensions and even a referral to the Government’s Prevent Programme, according to a new report.

The research by the human rights organisation CAGE identified 49 cases since May 2021 in which students, teachers and non-students have been “censored for expressing or exercising support for the Palestinian cause.” All of the individuals targeted were Muslim. 

This followed the recent outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestine that started on 10 May 2021, although disturbances took place earlier. The violence, which lasted until a ceasefire was called 11 days later, led to the killing of 253 people in Gaza, including 66 children. Rockets fired from Gaza into Israel killed 12 people, including two children. 

The “crackdown on support for Palestine in schools,” the report stated, led to students being left “confused, upset, and alienated from their schools, as well as being left feeling unable to safely express their views.”

Prevent Referrals

The interventions identified by CAGE included 22 verbal warnings given to students who expressed solidarity with Palestine. 

Seven students in a London academy were temporarily excluded “when it was deemed wearing a Palestine badge to school was inappropriately political”. A sixth form student was threatened with temporary exclusion after putting up posters and the Palestinian flag. 

In another secondary school in London, students were banned from wearing the abaya or anything resembling “Middle Eastern clothes.” 

Of the 49 cases identified by CAGE, one led to a referral to the Government’s Prevent programme, which places a responsibility on certain institutions and bodies, such as schools, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. However, it has been criticised for singling out support and solidarity with Palestine as being “a marker of ‘extremism’ or ‘radicalisation’”, according to CAGE. 

The Prevent referral concerned a Birmingham student with behavioural issues. Following a Prevent assembly about the Israel-Palestine conflict, the student emailed the school with hadith and Islamic videos about the end of days as well as about “ruqya” (Islamic spiritual healing). His father told the school and the student’s behavioural issues meant he struggled to express himself clearly. He was referred to Prevent and social services.

“The structural racism that shapes the Prevent policy in schools has likely helped to create an enabling culture of suspicion towards Muslim activism, and strengthen existing opposition to specific causes that can be associated with Muslims, such as Palestine,” explained CAGE.

Earlier this year, Byline Times revealed how the process to appoint an independent reviewer of the Prevent Programme had been “rigged” to appoint William Shawcross. His former role as a director of the Henry Jackson Society lobbying group meant he was close to the Home Secretary Priti Patel, who received a £2,500 donation from the society. The Henry Jackson Society has close ties to far-right ideologues Steve Bannon and the Mercer family. 

Byline Times also revealed that the Government’s Lead Commissioner on Countering Extremism, Robin Simcox, had ties to far-right organisations. Simcox is a former Margaret Thatcher Fellow at the Heritage Foundation – a right-wing think-tank in Washington D.C. which was close to Donald Trump’s administration. 

Simcox is also close to Katherine Gorka, wife of Sebastian Gorka – a former top Trump counter-terrorism advisor who lost his job shortly after revelations emerged of his public support for, and membership of, several Nazi-allied anti-Semitic groups in Hungary. It is reported that Katherine Gorka has a history of promoting discredited far-right anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

Simcox spoke in 2019 at an American anti-immigrant group, the Centre for Immigration Studies (CIS). The centre has circulated anti-Semitic, white nationalist materials over a 10-year period. They include articles by noted Holocaust deniers and eugenicists. He also promoted several racist and anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists. 

Freedom of Speech 

The targeting of pro-Palestinian actions in schools raises questions about the Government’s commitment to free speech, which has been much trumpeted by the Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. 

The Department for Education has primarily focused its free speech drive on universities, with claims that “cancel culture” is “jeopardising British universities’ global reputation.”

Its white paper on free speech on campus cited the right-wing legal charity ADF International, whose American branch has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. 

However, a set of Conservative MPs who dub themselves the “common sense group” have argued that schools should be governed by the same free speech rules included in the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

A report in the Express newspaper claims that “woke schools could be fined if found showing ‘gross disregard’ for free speech”. 

This commitment to free speech in education, however, does not seem to extend to young people expressing solidarity with Palestine, according to CAGE. 

“The punitive reaction from schools towards children expressing support and solidarity for Palestinians reflects a political context that has sought to toxify Palestine, and an institutional environment that seeks to silence discussions around social and political issues in schools,” said CAGE researcher Azfar Shafi. 

“Schools should remember their role in fostering an environment conducive to civic education, rather than discipline students for practising basic empathy,” he added.

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