LONDON: The recent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has inspired a trend of pro-Palestine protests in British schools, with controversy surrounding the response of some teachers after pupils were unfairly accused of antisemitism and one headteacher describing the Palestinian flag as a “call to arms.”
Mike Roper, headteacher of Allerton Grange high school in the city of Leeds, apologized following a heavy backlash after he claimed in a school assembly that the flag could be considered a “a message of support for antisemitism.”
Roper’s speech, which was posted online, quickly went viral and inspired protests, with extra police having to be posted outside the school.
The school said the assembly was intended to address tensions within its multicultural student body that had been sparked by the conflict.
In other schools and colleges, concerns have been raised over children being subjected to disciplinary action for their support for Palestine.
In Clapton Girls’ Academy in London, students refused to return to their classes and chanted “free Palestine.”
A student at the protest said they had decided to conduct a sit-in after teachers removed posters about Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Loreto College in the city of Manchester was closed after staff were informed about a planned protest.
Some 200 students gathered by the gates waving Palestinian flags, with other members of the public joining their assembly.
At Allerton Grange, ahead of Roper’s speech, some pupils said Palestinian flag lanyards they wore had been confiscated.
He said he spoke to 20 students, urging them not to adopt Palestinian symbols as some students and staff could “feel threatened and unsafe” by the sight of the flag.
“That flag is seen as a call to arms and seen as a message of support for antisemitism,” he added.
Following the video address, Roper said he was “deeply sorry that a particular example I used in that assembly, referring to the Palestinian flag, has caused such upset,” and promised to engage with the local community about the responses he had received.
Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament Ross Greer said: “Imagine being a Palestinian kid at this guy’s school, being told your national flag is inherently hateful. Absolutely outrageous.”
Ilyas Nagdee, a former National Union of Students black students’ officer who works on race equality in education, told The Guardian newspaper that he had received close to 100 reports of students being punished for expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people.
These incidents included baseless accusations of antisemitism, school exclusions and threats of a report to Britain’s anti-radicalization program.
“At a time when young people are getting politicized and exercising civil action, we are seeing some school leaders do their utmost to stymie them and prevent them developing themselves politically,” he said.
Alexandra Wright, a senior rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in northwest London, said freedom of expression is crucial and young people should be free to express themselves in an educated and nuanced way.
“All forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia should be condemned, and young people should be educated to understand the difference between their criticism of policies that belong to particular leadership and governments, on the one hand, and targeting Jews or Muslims who are not citizens of those countries about whom they are protesting, on the other,” she said.