Silence is violence: UK schools complicit in Gaza genocide

Protecting children as a teacher means speaking up about Israel's crimes in Gaza
7 min read

Samira A

23 October, 2023
UK education secretary Gillian Keegan has echoed her government’s support for Israel since its attacks on Gaza. Yet instead of schools raising awareness, like with the Russia-Ukraine war, they are silencing Palestine solidarity, writes Samira A.
UK education secretary Gillian Keegan expressed the UK’s unwavering solidarity with Israel and offered £3 million to fund the protection of Jewish nurseries, schools, colleges and community groups, writes Samira A. [GETTY]

On the 17 October, the day an Israeli airstrike hit a hospital in Gaza killing hundreds of innocent civilians and wounding countless more, the education secretary Gillian Keegan wrote a letter providing guidance to UK schools. In it, she offered condolences to Jewish communities and condemned the “barbaric terrorist attacks” enacted upon Israel. She expressed the UK’s unwavering solidarity with Israel and offered £3 million to fund the protection of Jewish nurseries, schools, colleges and community groups.

The words ‘Palestine’ or ‘Gaza’ did not come up once.

Clearly for the British government, the safety of Muslim school children who may face security fears at this volatile time doesn’t matter at all. When Keegan’s letter does implicitly refer to Muslim pupils, however, it does so through framing all pro-Palestine sentiment as inherently threatening, innately anti-British and - most pernicious of all - a potential precursor to extremism that should be flagged to Prevent: the UK’s counter terrorism strategy. Not only does this criminalise Muslim children in the classroom but it sends a clear message: Muslim political expression of any kind is always somewhere on the pipeline to terrorism and should therefore always be suppressed - whether that’s by Muslim students silencing themselves through fear, or by criminalisation at the hands of the state (via the classroom).

As a teacher, I know that schools must remain apolitical. A school would not, for example, stick campaign posters for the Conservative party around its classrooms just because the headteacher might be of that political persuasion. A school couldn’t advocate for a specific political cause like Brexit or proselytise that its students become socialists, because that would be neglecting its duty to nurture all students equally. But the trouble is, in some cases, apolitical isn’t apolitical at all. It’s deeply political. It is political by design.

It means siding with genocide.

Some things simply don’t have two sides. When Russia invaded Ukraine, schools ran cake sales, opened up their halls for charity donation drives and held non-uniform days to raise funds. Schools took in Ukrainian students and welcomed them into their community, put on assemblies and cultural exchange programmes to highlight the plight of civilians whose lives had been torn apart by Russian forces. Nobody said, what about the Russians? Isn’t it anti-Russian to support Ukraine? Isn’t it radicalisation to turn your profile picture blue and yellow or pin a badge to your blazer? We didn’t turn on the news to see politicians rationalising the murder of Ukrainian infants as the sovereign right of any nation state.

But, as always, Palestine operates under entirely unique moral parameters compared to every other worldwide atrocity. Palestinians are ‘human animals’ to be exterminated: collateral damage and human shields at best, terrorists and savages at worst. And it is in this specific context of decades of occupation and worldwide dehumanisation that Keegan’s letter becomes all the more relevant - and disconcerting.

I see the picture from the inside and I know that schools are scared and cautious. They often serve diverse and complicated communities and nobody wants to ‘get it wrong’. So, what most schools, including my own, are defaulting to is simply ignoring the issue altogether. Staff have been briefed to shut down all mention of Israel or Palestine. Political flags and symbols drawn on hands or school books, pinned to blazers and bags must be removed or confiscated. At most, perhaps, a vague assembly about peace and hatred might be given by an uncomfortable teacher who can’t wait for the ordeal to be over.

But silence, sitting on the fence or waiting for the issue to be ‘over’ simply serves the narrative of the occupier. It feeds into one side of this genocide and that’s the side of those perpetrating it. After all, in the words of Martin Luther King, silence is complicity.

Palestine matters because every single teacher like me has a duty to safeguard the children in our care.

Perhaps it’s difficult for non-Muslim teachers to comprehend the scale to which the Palestinian cause sits at the heart of Muslimness itself. So if you don’t know, if you have the luxury to look away, if your circle isn't talking about it, then I’ll tell you. Like most British Muslims over the past week or so, the social media feeds of the Muslim teenagers in your classrooms have been dominated by images and videos of the most unthinkable atrocities.

Your students are up all night scrolling through pictures of the crushed bodies of infants, babies convulsing with the sheer shock of hearing a missile up close, children writing their names on their arms so that if they are killed they can be identified. As though they’re memes popping up on their screen, they are absorbing an endless stream of bodies hanging out of collapsed apartment blocks. Children whose entire bloodline has just been wiped out before their very eyes screaming for their mothers. White body bag after white body bag. This is what the British Muslim teenagers in your care are witnessing, day in, day out on their screens. This is what they are sharing and being sent. They are going to sleep at night with these images etched into their brains. And like any child would, they have questions. Why is this happening? How is this allowed to happen? Why is the government standing unequivocally with the perpetrators of this genocide? How is this self-defence?

They are hearing nothing but Palestine at the dinner table, and at the mosque, perhaps attending protests at the weekend. They are in pain. And yet at school - the place they spend the majority of these crucial, formative years - even the mere mention of the ‘P’ word is criminalised.

They are forced to silence the tidal wave of anger and anguish and confusion rushing in their still developing minds because they fear they’ll be labelled a terrorist, or anti-Semitic.

Gillian Keegan may not value the safety of Muslim children on par with that of Jewish children, but as a Muslim teacher, I do. Our youth deserve safety just like the children who the government has pledged millions to protect. The classroom should be a safe space where children can ask questions about the world around them without fear of criminalisation or judgement.

Students routinely ask teachers about things in the news, things they are hearing in their communities and homes, because they view teachers as trusted adults whose job it is to help them grapple with the big problems of our time. Instead of facing the implicit threat of the surveillance state, Muslim children deserve the space to unpack, to debrief, to comprehend. They need the means to come to terms with what they are saying and schools have a duty to provide this outlet for them without the threat of Prevent bearing down on them.

Schools, leaders and teachers have a moral duty to acknowledge Palestine in the classroom. It is not a breach of the apolitical standard placed upon schools to safeguard the wellbeing of their Muslim pupils. It is not inherently political to allow students room to express their views and ask questions. It is not taking a side to provide pupils with the indisputable historical facts and allow them to draw their own conclusions. And if these things are somehow problematic to you, then it isn’t really about the impartiality of schools at all, but actually that schools function to uphold the status quo and peddle government narratives.

Muslim children are already at risk from Islamophobic attacks in public, which we know historically rise during times like these, and are an even more imminent threat now since the murder of six year old Wadea Al Fayoume in the US for simply being Muslim. They’re already suffering the psychological trauma of absorbing endless graphic content and watching the genocide of those who share their religious and/or cultural heritage unfold before their eyes. But on top of that, they’re not safe from criminalisation in the classroom. And unless schools untangle themselves from the belief that silence is the only apolitical option, then Muslim children will continue to be failed by the very institutions that should be there to support them.

Samira A is a UK-based teacher. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.