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Legal challenge against UK ban on pupils debating Israel’s “right to exist”

24th Sep 2021
Legal challenge against UK ban on pupils debating Israel’s “right to exist”

Photo: Gavin Williamson (Credit: Richard Townshend/UK Parliament)

Hamed Chapman

London-based human rights organisation Cage launched a legal challenge early this month to a letter written by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, providing guidance to schools about how they should handle student protests against Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

The letter, dated May 28, addresses what is described as ‘Anti-Semitic incidents’ in schools and called on school leaders and staff to “act appropriately” when they express political views on Israel and Palestine as well as claiming they are prohibited from engaging with organisations that reject Israel’s right to exist.

“Cage believes that no such right exists in international law that prohibits people and groups from questioning a state’s legitimacy,” the organisation said, which aims ‘to empower communities impacted by the “War on Terror”’.

The notion of Israel’s ‘right to exist’ is said to be just a partisan political view that the Education Secretary is “prohibited from promoting, in any way, under the 1996 Education Act.

“For too long, the political phrase ‘Israel’s right to exist’ has been used as a weapon to silence any debate about the legitimacy of its creation, the right of return of Palestinian refugees displaced by its creation and the apartheid nature of the Israeli state,” its Managing Director, Muhammad Rabbani, said.

“Our children should not be prevented by the Education Secretary from having access to organisations and material that provide a balanced view of these issues.” Questioned by The Muslim News, a Department for Education spokesperson said that “anti-Semitism, 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 anti-Semitic incidents with due seriousness, following a reported increase during the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the spokesman said

“The law is clear that schools must remain politically impartial. Schools must not promote partisan political views and should ensure the balanced treatment of political issues,” he added. Also stating that his department was “developing further guidance to support schools to understand and meet their duties in this area.”

Expert opinions provided by eminent international law jurist Professor John Dugard and Professor Avraham “Avi” Shlaim, emeritus fellow at Oxford University and several Palestinian civil society organisations supported the legal challenge seeking a judicial review in the High Court.

The Palestinian Return Centre, the Palestinian Forum in Britain, the British Palestinian Policy Council and Al Haq provided evidence to support the judicial review. Professor Dugard, a former member of the UN International Law Commission, said Israel claims it has the right to exist “because the legality of its creation was contested and is still a matter for debate” and that in order to assert its legitimacy as a State and the legality of its creation it asserts its “right to exist”.

“This assertion is not made in the exercise of any right recognised by international law. It is simply a political appeal designed to justify the morality and legality of Israel’s creation and existence as a State,” he said.
“To exclude this subject from debate would be a serious violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression,” he warned.

Professor Shlaim, who is a Fellow of the British Academy, said Israel’s claimed right to exist was “not a legal right but an ideological and emotionally loaded catchphrase that served to divert attention from mounting international opposition to its illegal occupation.”

Fahad Ansari, solicitor and director of Riverway Law, who is instructed in this challenge, said that the evidence filed in support of the challenge “clearly demonstrates that the Education Secretary breached the Education Act 1996 by imposing his partisan political view on school pupils.”

“While he is entitled to hold the view that Israel has the right to exist, he cannot legally deny discussion about the legality of its creation and its current legitimacy. Schools should be safe spaces for healthy debate, not institutions of political indoctrination,” Ansari said.Williamson has 21 days to confirm if he intends to contest the claim and, if so, to provide his summary grounds for defence. If he contests the claim and the High Court decides the case is arguable, it will grant permission for the full hearing to proceed.

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