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UCU & NUS condemn education secretary's Palestine comments

10 February 2022

Joint UCU and National Union of Students (NUS) statement on education secretary's attack on Palestine solidarity.

On January 27th, in a newspaper interview, Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi was reported to have said that students who chant "From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free" should be reported to the Police.  

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. 

As many Palestinians have made clear, this chant is one used widely by Palestinians and those advocating for their rights because it speaks to the reality that Israel's system of oppression denies freedoms and rights to Palestinians as citizens of Israel, as well as to Palestinians living under continuing military occupation and siege.   

Amnesty International's report, launched last week, confirms the reality lived and articulated  by Palestinians for decades: that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid. As Amnesty put it: "whether they live in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank or Israel itself, Palestinians are treated as an inferior racial group and systematically deprived of their rights."  B'Tselem, Israel's leading human rights organisation, reached the same conclusion in its report last year, stating that Israel has established "one regime between then Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea and we must ... see it for what it is: apartheid." 

Zahawi's demonisation of the phrase denies the legitimacy of the Palestinian call for liberation from all aspects of this system of domination. He knows that there are no laws that would justify anyone being criminalised for chanting this phrase. His rhetoric must therefore be understood as part and parcel of a wider attempt to silence and erase activism for Palestinian rights through the creation of a chilling effect.  

The Secretary of State's comments display cavalier disregard for the rights and freedoms of UK students to engage in legitimate protest, political advocacy, and basic political speech acts.  

We applaud the many thousands of young people who stand in principled solidarity with a people living under a system of apartheid and dispossession.  

We call upon the Education Secretary, as a matter of urgency, 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, not to mention their right to engage in mainstream political advocacy free from the threat of illegitimate police surveillance.

Last updated: 10 February 2022