UK stifles school debate on Gaza

A woman in chair, smiling

Gillian Keegan, a “mediocre minister in a murderous government.”

Tayfun Salci ZUMA Press Wire

As the UK continues its support for the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, British schools have been urged to play their part in complying with the murderous narrative.

On 17 October, the UK’s Education Secretary Gillian Keegan sent a letter to schools across Britain urging them to ensure student activity should not create “an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.” Responding to what she described as “the barbaric terrorist attacks in Israel” she declared that the UK “unequivocally condemns these terrorist attacks and stands in solidarity with Israel in its hour of need.”

Unsurprisingly, there was no mention of Israel’s genocidal bombing campaign in Gaza. In fact, there was no mention of Gaza at all. Nor Palestine.

Keegan did ensure that she referred to Prevent, the program overwhelmingly used to target the Muslim community and criminalize Muslim children, in a transparent attempt to conflate expressions of sympathy towards Palestinians with “extremism” or “radicalization.”

Keegan also announced more than $3.5 million of extra funding to “protect schools, colleges, nurseries and synagogues and other Jewish community buildings,” another blatant effort to create the perception that Palestine solidarity activists are dangerous.

Consequently, schools have been directed to ensure that “political expression is conducted sensitively.” They also had a responsibility to prevent behavior that “appears to celebrate or glorify violence” and any “expression of views that feels targeted against specific groups or stigmatizes others.”

Meanwhile, the letter points out that any support for Hamas is “illegal,” as well as being “contrary to British values.”

It apparently falls within the purview of the British government to decide which organizations comply with upholding its noble values and are worthy of support.

However, in the past, this has proven problematic as the UK often changes its characterization of various “terror groups” from friend to foe, depending on the geopolitical necessities at that particular time.

Shutting down discussion

The overriding message to take from Keegan’s letter is that ultimately there can be no form of student “political expression,” particularly of a pro-Palestinian nature. This is complemented by the government’s conflation of support for the people being slaughtered in Gaza with that of supporting terrorists.

Britain’s Home Secretary Suella Braverman has even suggested that flying the Palestinian flag and various chants could be construed as “glorifying terrorism.”

And we had the BBC, the UK state broadcaster, characterizing attendees at a recent London demonstration as supporting Hamas, which by extension, as it is a proscribed organization, constituted backing “terrorists.” This was followed by Braverman describing these peaceful demonstrations as “hate marches.”

School leaders and teachers are in effect being encouraged to shut down discussion as far as possible or simply ignore the ongoing genocide and hope nobody mentions it. And rather than take this as an opportunity to help widen understanding of the situation in Palestine, encourage discussion and avail of this “teachable moment,” the opposite has been the case.

But then, the government does not want students to know the background.

For if students were exposed to the realities of history, to 75 years of occupation, violence and ethnic cleansing, they would know who the real victim is. And our government cannot have that.

Of course, it was all a very different story in February 2022, when Russia launched its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Local authorities flew the Ukrainian flag. Discussion on the Ukrainian situation, political or otherwise, was now acceptable, indeed encouraged.

There were no “two sides to the story” then, no calls for schools to “ensure that any political expression is conducted sensitively.”

Far from it. It was charity fund-raising, cake sales and flag days.

So, what makes that different to discussing the bombing of Gaza?

Firstly, it’s different because our government informed the British public that Ukrainians were the good guys and Russians were evil.

But there is an even more obvious reason. The best example of this was provided by that bastion of state propaganda, the BBC.

In an interview with the BBC’s Ros Atkins, at the outset of Russia’s invasion, one of the contributors to the discussion on the conflict, a former prosecutor in Ukraine David Sakvarelidze explained, “it’s very emotional for me, because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.”

“I understand and respect the emotion,” replied Atkins.

And there we have it. Palestinians are the wrong color, their eyes and hair are too dark, and they have the wrong religion.

Unlike Ukrainians, Palestinians are not “very similar to us.” Hence, they are irrelevant.

But worse than that, after decades of Western propaganda, Palestinians have been dehumanized, and consequently it’s not unreasonable to describe them as “human animals,” as “children of darkness” who live by the “laws of the jungle”.

They are unpeople, dispensable, and consequently as we are seeing, easy to exterminate.

No excuse

And so, in 2023, as we witness a genocide, encouraged, supported and greenlit by Western governments and their acquiescent media, our institutions of education, those charged with expanding the knowledge and understanding of our young people, want to bury their heads, and indeed their students’ heads, in the sand.

Yet, in a few weeks’ time, schools across the UK will be holding their annual series of activities, events, and assemblies, to mark Remembrance Sunday. And as always, we will be reminded of the barbarism of war, of the need to learn from history and urged to never repeat the failings of the past.

The grotesque juxtaposition of such moral ceremonizing with a genocide unfolding in front of our eyes, a genocide backed by those who govern us, betrays the hypocrisy, the perfidy and mendacity of our education system. A theater of the absurd, but with murderous consequences.

Moreover, lest we forget, a large section of the UK population will wear a red poppy to demonstrate, in the words of the British Legion, “a show of support for the armed forces community,” and to “honor those who serve to defend our democratic freedoms and way of life.”

Considering the UK’s recent deployment of naval vessels, surveillance aircraft and a detachment of Royal Marines “to deliver practical support to Israel and partners in the region,” wearing a poppy is evidently a clear demonstration of support for those currently assisting the perpetrators of an ongoing genocide in Gaza.

Following the warnings of Suella Braverman not to “glorify acts of terrorism” by waving a flag, would she agree that poppy wearing constitutes such an act?

Then again, it’s not a Palestine flag. It’s not a kuffiyeh – as the Palestinian checkered scarf is known.

And moreover, the massacres are being perpetrated by, as Joe Biden might say, our “team”. So maybe not.

In the McCarthyite and Islamophobic environment that successive UK governments have fostered, it is understandable that many teachers may be reluctant, if not afraid, to discuss the war. Some may fear accusations of anti-Semitism.

Others may be simply uninformed and ignorant. As the American writer Upton Sinclair once observed, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Yet, however they rationalize it to themselves, there is no excuse.

The very presence of such a pervasive self-censorship is striking and extremely disquieting. Evidently, our government and media’s persistent propaganda has proven successful beyond their wildest dreams, and Bentham’s panopticon has been well and truly internalized amongst the populace.

“To glorify democracy and to silence the people is a farce; to discourse on humanism and to negate people is a lie,” wrote the educationist and philosopher Paolo Freire.

Yet this is precisely what our schools are guilty of. Consequently, they should drop the pretense of ethical values, compassion, and empathy, and embrace the fact that they are simply exam factories.

It is not their unicorns-and-rainbows “vision statements,” “mission statements,” or any other statements they issue, by which schools and colleges will be judged. It is by their actions.

And hiding behind the contemptible diktats of a mediocre minister in a murderous government is no excuse. Everyone has a choice.

For remaining silent as a genocide unfolds before our eyes is an unforgivable act of cowardice, of collaboration and of complicity.

Roddy Keenan is an Irish freelance journalist and author based in the UK.