Stop the Silencing of School Student Activists

silence– Konkordia Samoilova: A KECHG student
– Supported by NCAFC School and FE Reps
– Endorsed by NCAFC National Committee

NCAFC expresses our concern that students at King Edward’s Camp Hill School For Girls are being intimidated for protesting the conditions under which a visit by the Israeli deputy ambassador took place. What is following is a statement from a KECHG student, who is also an NCAFC activist, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Full solidarity with Camp Hill students! We support all students working to democratise their schools, colleges and universities:

In recent days, the Israeli ambassador visited the school. This was done in total secrecy, and all questions were seen in advance by staff. To add to that atmosphere of intimidation, the ambassador came with bodyguards.

The procedure for the Israeli Ambassador, which the School have tried to present as normal, was actually extremely atypical for speakers at our school. Speakers at our school are normally organised a week in advance, with a sign up sheet for anyone interested. Questions are not usually written down and then checked by staff. The structure is much more open and freeform. To take one example, a couple of years ago the school invited Gisela Stuart MP to speak. There was no reading of questions in advance and certainly no secrecy about who was coming to speak to the students.

The School repeatedly states that the visit was ‘not political’. An apolitical notion of diplomacy should be rejected. The very point of diplomacy is to advance a nation state’s interest to the rest of the world. That is a political interest. For instance, on September 9th the Embassy of Israel in the UK retweeted a press release by the Israeli Embassy. This was in support of Netanyahu’s comments that “Europe needs to support Israel, not pressure Israel and not attack Israel”, that is, essentially not to criticise the Israeli state on its treatment of Palestinians. There is nothing wrong with hosting political speaker, there is a problem in insisting that the visit has nothing to do with politics. There is no such thing as a ‘balanced’ or ‘neutral’ view that could have been presented. As none other than Desmond Tutu said “If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Hosting the Israeli ambassador without providing the opportunity for students to challenge him – which is what the short notice and secrecy in effect did – implies that the ambassador is a figure so uncontroversial that there is no need to interrogate or scrutinise his record as a representative of the Israeli state. You cannot have ‘balance’ whilst only airing the voice of one institution (and we cannot pretend that the Ambassador didn’t represent his institution and state on this visit).

The denigration or dismissal of students’ suggestions to move forward, such as inviting a Palestinian speaker, indicates that the School as an institution is neither interested in making amends nor is interested in a ‘dialogue’ between respected equals, that is, they are not considering our complaints about this process to be serious.

Furthermore, I maintain it is bizarre to talk of a mutual dialogue between Israel and Palestine, when one side has significantly more resources and access to power than the other – that is the power imbalance. This is not between Muslims and Jews, as it has been misleadingly stated, but rather between an occupied state and its occupier. The only dialogue that Israel has consistently been prepared to accept is the dialogue between a hammer and a nail. Dialogue plays a part, certainly. But no one has ever been liberated through the oppressed sitting down and having a cup of tea with the oppressor and making them see reason. Apartheid South Africa was used, in one meeting, as an example of the efficacy of ‘talking’. This is ahistorical, talking was only one part of an organised struggle. This struggle included trade union organisation and mass political strikes, such as the one on 7th September 1989, on the white election day, which involved 3 million workers.

A document produced by the school read that “people feel silenced”. Silenced by whom? There is nothing preventing anyone from speaking in favour of the Israeli ambassador visit. However students who have spoken against it, and spoken against the process itself, have been pulled out of lessons and there have been notices throughout school about their use of social media. A student has been deliberately singled out for having written a statement against it. This is silencing, this is an exercise of authority. Students voicing an opinion, and that opinion being shared widely, is not.

I reject the notion that myself and others were wrong to talk about the visit on social media, that this should have been done through individual talks to members of the Senior Leadership Team. Firstly, our use of social media, providing it is not used for bullying or harassment, can not and should not be subjected to the control of the School. This is not about my personal upset at the visit, this is a wider political issue and it should be treated as such. We are not asking for a forum to vent about how angry we are. We want change.

There is nothing unusual or unconventional about the format of an open letter. These have been frequently published in national newspapers, indeed if I search the Guardian now I can find within seconds an ‘Open Letter To Barack Obama’ or ‘An Open Letter to Google’. It is a format of voicing a collective opinion, and it is disingenuous of the School to act as if it is a personal attack. This is because dialogue between individuals is only a small part of the story in enacting change, and it is much more importantly communities, the collective, organising together that brings it about.

However I did not come solely to criticise, or solely to defend Camp Hill students from the School’s ‘disappointment’ in them.

I come to suggest a way forward. There should be a transparent procedure for accepting speaker requests that is collaboratively decided on by students and staff. What this process looks like to me, however this is only a starting point for discussion, should be that the speaker must accept certain conditions in coming to speak: that they understand it will be an open forum, that it will not be held in secret and there will be time to prepare challenges. If a speaker demands secrecy, demands that their presence goes unchallenged, we should state that these demands are insupportable according to our school procedure. This, surely, is not too radical for a school that prides itself on independently-minded young girls.

Speak Your Mind