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School protest over Palestinian flag ‘slur’

18th Jun 2021

Nadine Osman

Protesters demonstrated outside a school in Yorkshire on May 24, after its headmaster told pupils the Palestinian flag could be viewed as a “call to arms”.

Mike Roper, the headteacher at Allerton Grange in Leeds, also said the flag could be seen as a “message of support of anti-Semitism” and claimed it may make some people feel “unsafe”.

He made the comments during an assembly on May 19 after a group of pupils were disciplined for wearing lanyards bearing the Palestinian flag.

Footage of the assembly was then shared online, where it was heavily criticised, around 20 protesters stood outside the school while waving Palestinian flags and playing music. Furqana Khan, who has two nephews in the school, said Roper’s comment were “alarming”.

“Allerton Grange is a very good school, that’s why I was shocked when my nephew told me what happened. The most alarming aspect is how oblivious he is about how xenophobic it is to equate Palestinian symbols with anti-Semitism,” she told The Muslim News.

Her nephew, A-level student, Ali (pseudonym), said, “Mr Roper said that some people are threatened by the Palestinian flag and see it as anti-Semitic that means they are misinformed. Isn’t it his job to educate those misinformed people, instead of asking people to hide or suppress their support for a nation under attack?”

Speaking to The Muslim News the 17-year-old said, “Another thing to remember is how his message sounds to every Palestinian hearing it. How can you care so much about the feelings of one group but be so flippant about the feeling of another?”

In the assembly Roper said students articulated “how they felt about innocent people in the Middle East and how they were being treated. But the problem is by using a symbol such as the Palestinian flag that message is lost because for some people they see that flag and they feel threatened, they feel unsafe.”

“They worry because for other people that flag is seen as a call to arms and seen as a message of support of anti-Semitism, for being anti-Jewish and it was never meant to be like that in the first place.” The footage attracted anger online, with some describing Mr Roper’s comments as Islamophobic and amounting to “the complete erasure of Palestine”.

Ross Greer, Scottish Green party MSP, also wrote online, ‘Imagine being a Palestinian kid at this guy’s school, being told your national flag is inherently hateful absolutely outrageous and racist behaviour from someone in a position of power.’

Roper has apologised for his comments in a joint letter from the school and Leeds City Council. He said, ‘In a diverse school like Allerton Grange, with such a rich mix of communities, it is not surprising that divisions on the international front will be felt within our school. It was in an attempt to address those tensions that I gave an assembly to all students.

‘I am deeply sorry that a particular example I used in that assembly, referring to the Palestinian flag, has caused such upset within the community. That was never my intention. ‘The full message shared with students last week praised our students’ passion for their views and beliefs. It set out how we want to work through the issues highlighted with our students in an informed and respectful way.’

Intervention by Education Secretary slammed

In related news the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) voiced its concern over the intervention by the Education Secretary. In a letter to head teachers on May 28, Gavin Williamson reminded teachers of their ‘responsibility to ensure that they act appropriately, particularly in the political views they express’.

‘Schools should not present materials in a politically biased or one-sided way and should always avoid working with organisations that promote anti-Semitic or discriminatory views,’ wrote Williamson.

However, PSC told The Muslim News that although they recognise the importance of “impartiality when facilitating political discussions in the classroom” they emphasised the need to teach “young people how to discern the difference between fact and opinion” including an “understanding of the issues of rights, justice and unequal distributions of power.”

Adding that “facilitating discussion about Palestine/Israel needs to adhere to these principles and be rooted in a framework of respect for the facts of history and for international law and human rights.”

The statement continues: “Over the past few weeks we have seen schools and colleges fail to adhere to these principles in their response to pupils raising their concerns regarding the injustices they see being perpetrated upon the Palestinian people. We have seen incidents of children being reprimanded, suspended and harangued by school leaders for expressing entirely legitimate views. We have also seen suggestions that the display of the Palestinian flag should be regarded as an inherently antisemitic act.”

PSC said hostility towards Palestinian support in schools is “undoubtedly encouraged by a climate generated by the Government’s ‘Prevent’ policy and the flawed framework it has developed for tackling antisemitism.”

“Respect for the facts of history and for international law should include allowing pupils to understand the position of independent human rights monitoring organisations such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Human Rights Watch and Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem.”

The Muslim Council of Wales offered support for any “parent or a young person who feel in any way threatened, victimised or made to feel uncomfortable by inappropriate treatment, hostility or comments as a result of showing or vocalising support for Palestine.”

The organisation said that although “there have been excellent examples of how schools have engaged with young people and encouraged them to show their solidarity with the humanitarian suffering in Palestine in a positive and inclusive manner, there have been isolated examples where a lack of understanding, mistrust and an over-reliance on sanctions has led to young people feeling unfairly targeted and sanctioned.”

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