Anger over British teachers’ response to pro-Palestine protests

UK/May 27, 2021/By: Nazia Parveen Community affairs correspondent/Source: https://www.theguardian.com/

Leeds headteacher forced to apologise after saying Palestinian flag was seen as ‘call to arms’

The recent Middle East conflict has prompted a wave of pro-Palestine protests in British schools and controversy over the staff response, with pupils being accused of antisemitism and one headteacher describing the Palestinian flag as a “call to arms”.

Mike Roper, the headteacher of Allerton Grange high school in Leeds, was forced to apologise after he claimed in an assembly that some people saw the flag as a “symbol of antisemitism”.

Video of the speech was posted online, going viral and prompting a backlash and protests, with extra police having to be posted outside the school.

The assembly was intended, the school said, to address tensions within its multiracial student community caused by the situation in Israel. But instead the speech brought accusations of “blatant Islamophobia” and staff being instructed to help students into and out of school safely following the furious response.

Similar disputes have occurred in schools across the UK since the latest deadly violence in Israel and Gaza, with questions raised over why children expressing support for Palestine are being accused of antisemitism and in some cases subjected to disciplinary action.

During a protest at Clapton girls’ academy in east London, students sat down and chanted “free Palestine”, refusing to return to lessons. One student, Mina, said the children had decided to protest after teachers removed posters about the Palestinian struggle from the walls of the schools.

In Manchester, senior leaders at Loreto college decided to close the institution after hearing about a planned protest. About 200 students went on to assemble near the gates waving flags, with members of the public joining the march.

At Allerton Grange it is understood tensions had been bubbling for a number of days before Roper’s controversial assembly, with some pupils claiming they had lanyards bearing the Palestinian flag confiscated.

In the two-minute video the headteacher describes speaking to 20 students urging them not to use symbols and flags as some people may see the flag and “feel threatened and unsafe”. He went on to add: “That flag is seen as a call to arms and seen as a message of support for antisemitism.”

A statement was later issued in which Roper said he was “deeply sorry that a particular example I used in that assembly, referring to the Palestinian flag, has caused such upset” and promised to engage with local councillors and community representatives about the issues raised.

The Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer said: “Imagine being a Palestinian kid at this guy’s school, being told your national flag is inherently hateful. Absolutely outrageous.”

The author and Cambridge University academic Priyamvada Gopal also reacted with dismay to the video.She said: “Young people can be taught about the evils of antisemitism, and they can learn about the Palestinian flag and its importance to a people’s struggle for self-determination. We are all capable of holding more than one thought in our head at the same time, and students should not be patronised by pretending otherwise.”

Ilyas Nagdee, a former NUS black students’ officer who works on race equality in education, said he had received reports of close to 100 cases of young people facing consequences for speaking up about Palestine. These included being accused of antisemitism, punished, excluded from school, threatened with a report to Prevent anti-radicalisation programme and even being visited by police.

He said: “At a time when young people are getting politicised and exercising civil action we are seeing some school leaders do their utmost to stymie them and prevent them developing themselves politically.”

Daniel Kebede, a senior vice-president of the National Education Union, said schools should be a safe space that allowed young people to explore difficult subjects. “What is happening in Israel/Palestine should be a topic that is explored in schools with sensitivity so that young people can generate their own understanding,” he said.

One teacher, who wanted to remain anonymous, said at her school students had been explicitly banned from distributing material bearing the Palestinian flag and students who had been passing round “free Palestine” stickers were humiliated in front of their peers, with the headteacher calling them “cowards and racists”.

“These blanket bans on any mention of the word ‘Palestine’ at school seem to be commonplace, and are even being encouraged by some local councils. Evidently, these are deeply racist policies,” she said.

Alexandra Wright,a senior rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, London, said freedom of expression was very important and young people should be allowed to express their views in an educated and nuanced way, adding that it was of supreme importance that young people in schools and universities were educated about the history and the current situation in the Middle East.

She said: “All forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia should be condemned and young people should be educated to understand the difference between their criticism of policies that belong to particular leadership and governments, on the one hand, and targeting Jews or Muslims who are not citizens of those countries about whom they are protesting, on the other.”

A spokesperson for Na’amod, a Jewish anti-​occupation campaign group, said no student should be disciplined or accused of antisemitism simply for supporting Palestinian freedom or waving a Palestinian flag.

All the schools named were contacted for comment. A spokesperson for Clapton girls’ academy said: “There was a respectful protest at the school where students raised issues related to Palestine. A small number of posters were taken down because students did not request permission to put them up beforehand.”

News Source: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/may/26/anger-over-british-teachers-response-to-pro-palestine-protests

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