Higher education bodies condemn UK Education Secretary's Palestine chant stance

Higher education bodies condemn UK Education Secretary's Palestine chant stance
The University and College Union and the National Union of Students have criticised the UK Education Secretary for his comments on chants used at pro-Palestine protests, calling them a threat to free speech.
2 min read
11 February, 2022
Nadhim Zahawi implied that protesters could face prosecution for chanting pro-Palestine slogans [Getty]

In a joint statement, two of the UK’s leading unions for higher education staff and students have spoken out against Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s comments at a conference on anti-Semitism hosted by his department in January this year. 

In his original comments, Zahawi said that protesters heard chanting the slogan "From the river to sea Palestine will be free" should be referred to the police.

He implied that usage of the phrase was tacit support for Hamas, who control the Gaza Strip and were added to the UK’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations in November 2021. 

In their statement, the University and College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS) said "these comments should deeply alarm not only all those concerned with the struggle of the Palestinian people for freedom, justice, and equality, but anyone who wishes to preserve democratic freedoms from authoritarian encroachment".

They added that Zahawi's comments were "part and parcel of a wider attempt to silence and erase activism for Palestinian rights through the creation of a chilling effect".

Contested slogans 

Gaining popularity in the 1960’s - well before the publication of Hamas’s original governing charter in 1988 - the phrase "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" was first seen as a slogan that could unite disparate Palestinian experiences of occupation and displacement from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and within the state of Israel under one call for freedom. 

A similar phrase can also be found in the founding charter of Israel’s right-wing Likud party, which states that "between the Sea and the Jordan river there will only be Israeli sovereignty".

Amnesty report impact

The statement from the UCU and the NUS made several references to Amnesty’s high profile report published last week, which called for Israeli’s accountability for "committing the crime of apartheid against the Palestinians”. 

Emboldened by the report’s findings, they said Amnesty International "confirms the reality lived and articulated by Palestinians for decades: that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid."

They called on the Education Secretary "to withdraw his remarks and make clear that he will fulfil his responsibilities to protect the basic democratic rights of students to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly".

Both organisation are well-known for their support for Palestinian rights and regularly join demonstrations calling for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the siege of the Gaza Strip.