The British High Court has today ruled against a judicial review of the Tory government’s pro-Israel school policy which last summer accelerated a hostile crackdown on pro-Palestinian solidarity across the country.
Lodged by the human rights advocate group CAGE, the judicial review challenged the former education minister Gavin Williamson over a letter sent to school last May warning about anti-Semitism.
The letter addressed to headteachers ordered them to ensure “political impartiality” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in response to “a concerning increase in anti-semitic incidents in some schools.” 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 letter required schools to not work with organisations that it said question Israel’s “right to exist”. It also directed schools to work with organisations to explain the conflict which are openly pro-Israel. While the government presented this as a politically neutral view, CAGE argued that the government position promoted a “partisan political view” and instructed schools to do the same. It further directly and indirectly discriminates against Muslim pupils.
As many as 47 Muslim pupils and teachers faced censure for expressing solidarity with Palestine during Israel’s 11-day onslaught on Gaza last year which killed 256 people including, women and children and injured more than 2,000.
In some schools, British students were banned from wearing or displaying any colours of the Palestinian flag, as well as abayas or any clothing resembling ‘Middle Eastern clothes’, because of a letter by Williamson to schools warning about anti-Semitism.
British students were also allegedly suspended because it was deemed that wearing a Palestine badge to school was “inappropriately political” and may “offend” students. UK schools have a duty to remain impartial in schools but according to lawyers who challenged the government, schools were instructed to adopt a pro-Israel position that was prejudicial to Palestinians and anyone showing solidarity with their cause.
In its legal challenge, CAGE’s lawyers asked the Secretary of State to publicly withdraw the letter and invite consultation on its replacement. The group also asked the government to disclose details of the incidents of anti-Semitic abuse, as well as to share the “empirical and/or anecdotal evidence” that the rise in incidents “was a result of the increased focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.
“Judge allows the Department of Education to clamp down on Palestine solidarity in schools,” said CAGE in a press release. “In a blow to free speech, High Court judge Dame Beverley Lang DBE, has today allowed the Department of Education to continue its clamp down on Palestine solidarity in schools after denying permission for a judicial review brought by CAGE,” added the London based rights group.
“The decision today is disappointing but unsurprising. It validates the Department of Education’s attempts to police the Palestine debate at our schools in favour of the pro Israel narrative. The choreographing of political discussions in this way within schools is akin to the manner of autocratic regimes and seriously curtails freedom of speech,” said Muhammad Rabbani, managing director of CAGE.
Solicitor and Director of Riverway Law leading on this Judicial Review, Fahad Ansari, also expressed outrage. “The Court has essentially enabled the government to compel head teachers and school leaders to adopt a partisan view on the Israeli-Palestinian issue thereby shifting their role from education to indoctrination. Equating the rejection of the State of Israel’s ‘right to exist’ with antisemitism is not only factually wrong but undermines the fight against genuine antisemitism,” said Ansari.