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UK education secretary faces legal action over calls to silence Palestine support in schools

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in London, UK on 21 July 2020 [Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency]
Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson in London, UK on 21 July 2020 [Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency]

The advocacy organisation CAGE has launched a legal challenge claiming UK Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, discriminated against Muslim students and failed to protect freedom of expression in a letter to headteachers ordering them to clampdown on students who express solidarity with Palestine on school premises.

Some students were disciplined for wearing keffiyehs and holding Palestine flags during Israel's 11-day assault on Gaza in May.

The deadly bombardment killed 253 Palestinians, including 66 children, and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

In May, Williamson wrote that there had been an "increased focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in many schools," and a "worrying spike in antisemitic incidents."

However, London-based CAGE, said that Williamson's letter, "although cloaked in concerns around anti-semitism," failed to "recognise the importance of the rights of political expression and association."

"The aim was to set a fixed template within which pupils' discussion on Israel-Palestine should be conducted."

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In a pre-action letter for a judicial review sent on Monday, Cage argues that the guidance discriminates against Muslim students by failing to mention "the increase in discriminatory behaviour towards Muslim pupils by teaching staff."

It also leads schools to violate their legal duty for impartiality, CAGE added.

Fahad Ansari, who is leading the judicial review, said in a statement that Williamson's instructions stifled "the legitimate political views of Muslim students." CAGE's Managing Director Muhammad Rabbani said the government had "sought to censor discussions in classrooms and exert control over any political activity in schools".

"This is fundamentally a matter of freedom of expression," Rabbani added.

A Department for Education spokesperson told MEMO: "Antisemitism, like all forms of racism, is abhorrent and has no place in our schools. The Education Secretary wrote to schools to remind them of their responsibility to deal with antisemitic incidents with due seriousness, following a reported increase during the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

CAGE recorded 47 cases of students and teachers being censured for expressing solidarity with Palestine during Israel's assault on Gaza in May. The censures included suspensions, verbal warnings and one referral to the Prevent anti-extremism programme. All 47 cases involved Muslim children and adults.

UPDATE: On 5 August 2021 at 10.20GMT this article was updated to include a quote from the Department for Education 

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