CAGE launches legal challenge over ban on schools debating Israel’s ‘right to exist’

Advocacy group CAGE has issued judicial review proceedings in the High Court challenging the Education Secretary’s instructions prohibiting schools from engaging with organisations that reject Israel’s “right to exist.”

CAGE says that international law contains no such right to prohibit people and groups from questioning a state’s legitimacy, and that the prohibition is a serious violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression.

On May 28, shortly after Israel had bombarded Gaza, Gavin Williamson told headteachers: “Schools should not present materials in a politically biased one-sided way and should always avoid working with organisations that promote antisemitic or discriminatory views.

“Schools should be particularly wary of potential bias in resources which claim to present the conflict in a balanced manner schools and should not work with or use materials from organisations that publicly reject Israel’s right to exist.”

The government has also accepted the IHRA non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism which says that contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life could include “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.”

But CAGE says the notion of Israel’s “right to exist” is a partisan political view that the Education Secretary is prohibited from promoting in any way under the 1996 Education Act.

Gavin Williamson. Editorial credit: Ilyas Tayfun Salci / Shutterstock.com

The legal challenge has been supported by expert opinions provided by eminent international law jurist Professor John Dugard and Professor Avi Shlaim, emeritus fellow at Oxford University.

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.

International law jurist Professor John Dugard said: “In order to assert its legitimacy as a state and the legality of its creation it (Israel) asserts its ‘right to exist.’ This assertion is not made in the exercise of any right recognised by international law. It is simply a political appeal designed to justify the morality and legality of Israel’s creation and existence as a state. To exclude this subject from debate would be a serious violation of academic freedom and freedom of expression.”

Professor Avi Shlaim, emeritus fellow at Oxford University said: ”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.”

Muhammad Rabbani, Managing Director of CAGE, said: “For too long, the political phrase ‘Israel’ 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. 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.”

And Fahad Ansari, solicitor and director of Riverway Law, who is instructed in this challenge, said: “The evidence filed in support of the challenge clearly demonstrates that the Education Secretary breached the Education Act 1996 by imposing his own partisan political view on school pupils. While he is entitled to hold the view that Israel has a right to exist, he cannot legally deny discussion about the legality of its creation and its current legitimacy. Schools should be safe spaces for healthy debate, not institutions of political indoctrination.”

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