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UK: Rights group issues legal challenge ​​against ban on pupils discussing Israel's 'right to exist'

CAGE, a London-based rights group, launches judicial review proceedings over Education Minister Gavin Williamson's school guidance on pro-Palestine speech
Education Minister Gavin Williamson in May 2021 issued a letter banning schools from engaging with groups that reject Israel’s right to exist (AFP/File photo)

A British human rights group has moved forward with a legal challenge against UK Education Minister Gavin Williamson over a letter sent in May issuing "illegal" guidance to schools about how they should handle student protests against Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip

CAGE, a rights group in London, has formally issued judicial review proceedings in the High Court challenging Williamson's letter, which called on school leaders and staff to "act appropriately" when they express political views on Israel and Palestine.  

The letter also told schools that they were 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 in a news release on Friday. 

The group also asserted that the notion of "Israel’s right to exist" is "a partisan political view" that, under the UK's 1996 Education Act, the Education Secretary is prohibited from promoting in any way. 

"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," said Muhammad Rabbani, CAGE's managing director. 

"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," he continued. 

Williamson did not return Middle East Eye's request for comment by the time of this article's publication. 

'A serious violation of academic freedom'

CAGE, meanwhile, has said that its challenge has been supported by legal experts, including international law jurist Professor John Dugard and Professor Avi Shlaim, an emeritus fellow at Oxford University.

In CAGE's statement, Dugard said that Williamson's attempt to exclude debate over Israel's right to exist from school settings represents "a serious violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression". 

'This challenge aims at protecting the right to express solidarity with Palestinians... without fear of government-imposed censorship'

-CAGE

"Israel’s 'right to exist' is not a legal right but an ideological and emotionally loaded catch phrase that served to divert attention from mounting international opposition to its illegal occupation," Shlaim, also quoted in CAGE's statement, added. 

A number of Palestinian civil society organisations including the Palestinian Return Centre, the Palestinian Forum in Britain, the British Palestinian Policy Council and Al Haq, have also provided evidence in support of the judicial review, CAGE said. 

CAGE announced its intention to launch legal action challenging the guidance last month, branding Williamson's letter as an attempt to control political conversations on the issue in schools. 

The letter, sent to headteachers across the UK, warned of "legal duties regarding political impartiality", and urged administrations to present a "balanced presentation of opposing views" on Israel-Palestine.  

UK: Rights group challenges Williamson's schools guidance on Palestine
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Williamson's intervention came days after MEE reported that schools across Britain were clamping down on pro-Palestine activism on school premises. Some students were disciplined for wearing keffiyehs and holding Palestine flags. 

Several students who spoke to MEE said they were threatened with detention, expulsion, and being blocked from taking their exams if they continued protesting for Palestinian rights on school premises. 

MEND, a not-for-profit company that supports British Muslims, also recorded 146 statements from students detailing how schools attempted to shut down support for Palestine. 

One student was reprimanded for wearing a "Free Palestine" badge. In another school, teachers claimed it was Palestine's fault that it was being bombed. 

"This challenge aims at protecting the right to express solidarity with Palestinians in schools without fear of government-imposed censorship," CAGE wrote in a statement accompanying a crowdfunding effort launched to support the legal challenge. 

In August, Fahad Ansari, a solicitor leading the judicial review, said that the instruction issued by the Secretary had the effect of "not only stifling the legitimate political views of Muslim students in schools across the country but also justifying their securitisation for simply demonstrating solidarity with the victims of Israeli apartheid".