Young People in Brighton Protesting Against the Murder of Children in Gaza had to Put Up With an Attack by their Own Headteacher Shelly Baker
It is remarkable how age does not confer wisdom. As Shelley Baker, Headteacher of Brighton’s Varndean School demonstrated, sometimes people immature with age.
I came down at about 10.30 to Jubilee Square in Brighton, where the Library is situated, to find about 200 school students sitting in a square listening to speakers talking about how children, 40% of Gaza’s population, had died in their thousands because of Israel’s genocidal attack.
These youngsters had taken half a day off school to express their solidarity with their compatriots in Gaza. The strike had been organised by, amongst other groups, Parents4Palestine.
You might think that any Headteacher worth their salt would have expressed their support and admiration for the courage and integrity of these young people. Unfortunately this was not the case.
Varndean School is a place where all people matter…. A school where individuality is welcomed, celebrated and shared amongst our whole school community…. Student leadership, democracy and student voice are central to the way our school works. We believe that developing leadership skills in all students will help us nurture young adults who, in turn, will become respected, trusted and kind citizens.
Unfortunately these fine words were just that – words. As Neil Young wrote they are ‘words between the lines of age’. Meaningless interruptions of thought signifying nothing as is often the case with mission statements.
In her letter addressed toVarndean families Baker paid tribute to
‘young people’s involvement in democratic processes (but) we do not support students leaving school to strike
Perhaps someone should explain to Baker that striking is part of the democratic processes she refers to!
The rest of the letter went from dismal to dire to execrable. A school students strike to protest against the genocide of children in Gaza was turned into a ‘safeguarding’ issue. Who was to be safeguarded? Jewish and Israeli school students apparently. Baker wittered on:
We have been working hard in school to educate students in being sensitive to all students and understand how this impacts Jewish and Israeli students.
Shelley Baker – Head Teacher Varndean School
This is a classic example of anti-Palestinian racism. Whenever colonial violence is mentioned or referred to then immediately ‘anti-Semitism’ is brought up. As if that is what Jews now stand for. Israel is not a fucking Jew. It is an American sponsored Rottweiler in the Middle East. As Joe Biden put it, if Israel was not there it would have had to be invented. That is why the United States supports Israel, whatever it does, through thick and thin.
Baker went on about ‘the significant rise in reported anti-Semitic incidents.’ as if there is a connection between opposing genocide of Palestinian children and anti-Semitism in Britain.
Indeed, unwittingly, Baker herself was giving an excellent demonstration of the very anti-Semitism she was purportedly opposing. Her letter assumed that opposition to the murder of Palestinian children and anti-Semitism went together. In other words that Jews support the murder of Palestinians.
If that was the case then so what? It would be tragic that those who were the victims of extermination 80 years ago had now become the supporters of genocide. But if Shelley Baker were to open her eyes she would see that thousands of Jews worldwide have expressed their opposition to what is being done in their name.
Jewish Voice for Peace in the United States has led the sit-in and demonstrations of thousands of Jews in Congress. In Britain there is a host of Jewish organisations – from Jewish Network for Peace, Jewish Voices for Labour, Jews Against Genocide etc. – who formed part of a thousand strong bloc on the last demonstration in London.
What Shelley Baker along with her New Labour/Starmerite friends is doing is repeating the racist tropes of the now discredited Suella Braverman, the most racist Home Secretary that Britain has ever had the misfortune to experience. It is of note that all the racist schemes such as the Rwanda Project and the Public Order Act 2003 were supported by Keir Starmer and his supporters.
What Baker was saying was that if you oppose racist murders then you are a racist because the racists might take offence! We should turn a blind eye for fear of offending the racists.
If there are Jewish people who support what is happening in Gaza and unfortunately there are who go by the name Zionists, then shame on them. They should not be pandered to but condemned outright. However it is not anti-Semitic to oppose genocide.
I therefore wrote a letter to Shelly Baker asking her if she ever considered that the ‘reported rise in reported anti-Semitic incidents’ might have something to do with people like her. I wrote:
Has it never occurred to you that it is the association, by people like you, between British Jews and what Israel does that is responsible for the increase in anti-Semitism which you mention in your letter?
Are you not aware that every single human rights organisation from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch to Israel’s B’tselem have described Israel as an apartheid state? How come someone so ignorant of the world around her is head teacher of a major school in Brighton? …
Yes Israel describes itself as a Jewish State. South Africa 40 years ago described itself as a White State. Did that mean that every White person outside South Africa was implicated in the crimes of Apartheid? So why do you associate Jewish people in this country with what is a Jewish Supremacist state called Israel?
In the 1930s the pro-Zionist Daily Mail campaigned vociferously against the ‘bogus’ Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany – today they attack other refugees and asylum seekers
You mention the presence of Israeli students at your school. If you had had White South African students studying at the school would that have been a reason for keeping silent on apartheid? Would the presence of German students in British schools in the 1930s have been a reason for keeping quiet about the Nazis’ anti-Semitism?
Large parts of the British Establishment 90 years ago thought exactly like you do now and refused to even mention the Nazis’ policies towards Jews. I refer to the BBC and The Times, to say nothing of the Daily Mail and Express which campaigned against the entry of Jewish refugees from Germany.
I continued to explain that it was people like Shelly Baker who were in part responsible for any increase in anti-Semitism.
It is ironic that a letter that talks about ‘sensitivity’ towards Jewish students ends up repeating the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews are responsible for Israeli war crimes.
I concluded my letter by saying that
instead of pouring cold water on democratic initiatives on the part of your students it might be better to welcome them as a sign of their maturity. Would that the same could be said for some of their elders.
I asked Baker to withdraw her letter and apologise. There were by all accounts very many letters, not least from parents, along similar lines.
Taken aback by these letters Shelley Baker apologised, not for what she had written but for ‘giving offence’. In so doing she compounded her original crime, writing that the letter was written in haste but
It was important to address our immediate safeguarding concerns about an event organised outside of our school
You can take a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink. There were no safeguarding concerns. Certainly not in respect of Jewish students and the insinuation that Jews were put out by a strike against genocide was both racist, anti-Semitic and insulting.
Yet Shelley did not seem to understand, in her slow-witted, insensitive response. Instead of seeing her role as one of encouraging participation and debate, she sees herself as a controller and manager. An administrator reacting to the disruption of normal rhythms and routines by finding Jews as a peg to hang her frustrations upon.
I therefore wrote back to her tonight saying that the problem with her letter was not that it caused offence. This is the language of the enemies of freedom of speech. As Sir Stephen Sedley ruled in Redmond Bate v DPP (2000)
I pointed out to Baker that
sometimes it is necessary to give offence if justice is to be done. If Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks hadn’t offended White racists in Alabama and the Deep South Black people would still be segregated in cafes and buses.
If Palestinians don’t stand up to the neo-Nazis in Tel Aviv, the ones who march to the chant ‘Death to the Arabs’, in just the same way as my grandparents faced mobs chanting ‘death to the Jews’ in Poland, then the Palestinians will suffer a second Nakba… My grandparents were lucky to escape Poland in 1912 and thus avoid the Holocaust. Thousands of Palestinians are dying and have already died in Gaza and your students should be praised, not admonished, for having stood up for them.
What I take exception to is the way it is assumed that school students who have the courage and integrity to stand up against genocide taking place today in Gaza are attacked, by their head teacher no less, for posing a safeguarding threat to Jewish students. That is intolerable….
you have no business equating opposition to genocide, bombing of hospitals, medics, ambulances etc. with anti-Semitism. Are you really saying that Jews bear a responsibility for the actions of the Israeli state?
I finished by asking Baker to withdraw her letter and apologise
‘not for the offence it caused but (for) its contents. We all live and learn and I hope that you do so too.
The demonstration was also reported in the on-line Starmerite Brighton and Hove NewsScores of children skip school to call for Gaza ceasefire. If the article was not bad enough then the comments below it were vile. Despite being organised by Parents4Palestine one commenter wrote that it was ‘Basically grooming children into taking one side over another in a foreign religious conflict.’
Grooming children is not normally associated with their parents. An even more vile comment, by Pink Mermaid asserted that the attack on 7 October included ‘The Israeli babies that Hamas roasted in ovens. Or the 80% of children that were tortured 80% and beheaded.’
Needless to say this comment was also deleted
All of this atrocity propaganda has been disproven not least by Israel’s own statistics. No child under 3 died. Very few under 18 died. Compare this with the thousands of Palestinian children who Israel subsequently murdered. Perhaps Palestinian babies are also Hamas ‘terrorists’? That was the opinion of the vile commenters.
The paper is edited by an ardent Starmer supporter Genocide Jo Wadsworth who has supported every American war going – from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya and beyond. Unfortunately Brighton’s local paper The Argus doesn’t seem to cover local news anymore since it is produced mainly from Portsmouth.
I submitted a few comments all of which were removed by Genocide Jo. Clearly the only comments that are allowed are racist, bigoted and Islamaphobic ones. All in the cause of fighting ‘anti-Semitism’.
When I came to Brighton half a century ago Brighton and Hove had 3 Tory MPs and a Council controlled by the Conservatives. Today the Tories are a rare species Two MPs are Labour (though Peter Kyle in Hove is to the right of most Tories) and the other is Britain’s only Green MP Caroline Lucas. Brighton & Hove is a liberal city which is known as Britain’s Gay Capital.
It would appear that all the racists and reactionaries that we spent time evicting have found a home in Genocide Jo’s rag.
But we should be proud of the fact that though some of their elders are crusty reactionaries, young Brightonians are carrying on the tradition of radicalism which saw a 3,000 march for Palestine a couple of weeks ago and a multiplicity of activities in support of the Palestinians and against Genocide, including a sit in at the rail station and next Tuesday a picket of the clones in the local Starmerite Labour Group who control the Council and who have so far said nothing about the ongoing genocide.
Below is a story from a child in Gaza about what is happening.
Noar with her grandfather’s battery-operated radio. Photo provided by Noar Diab.
The windows are always open, to avoid the danger of shattered glass. Every morning I am woken by an obnoxious fly buzzing around the room. It gets louder the closer it is to my ear. Sleep is very precious because I get so little. Therefore, it is annoying to be deprived of it by an insect.
I get up and feel irritated. I wonder how I managed to sleep at all through the sound of my grandpa’s annoying radio. Every Gazan family has the same battery-powered radio. It is our source of information when there is no electricity or internet. I really hate that radio because of what it represents. It makes me feel so tense, because we only use it during times like these: when we are under attack and when people we love are dying.
I go to the bathroom. I wash my face using a Coca Cola bottle that I filled with water. Then I go to the kitchen to make coffee with the small amount of water I have left in the bottle. I sit there in the kitchen alone and drink it with feelings of guilt — because water is very scarce and some people are going days without drinking anything.
Next is the hardest part of my daily routine. I contact my friends one by one to check if they are still alive. I have to prepare myself mentally before I start messaging them. I do this out of habit, although I know it is in vain. I feel very anxious wondering whether I will ever get a response back.
I keep calling my best friend Maimana because I heard that there had been a bombardment where she is staying. I try again for the thirtieth time but her phone is still not ringing. She has no connection. I feel afraid for her safety and my heart starts pounding. I repeatedly tell myself that it will be okay and she will call me back when she has a connection.
Eventually, the rest of my family wakes up. I am no longer alone. We sit together and have our daily conversation about which neighborhoods Israel bombed last night. It is our morning ritual to catch up on what happened during those precious three hours of sleep.
There are 14 of us staying together in a relative’s house. Each of us has a chore to perform in the morning. The men go to the bakery to try and find some bread. Then they take the empty bottles and tanks to the well to fill them with water. Meanwhile, the women start doing the dishes, cleaning the floor, and preparing lunch.
Lunch depends on whether there is bread or not. Mostly there is not. Our options are limited, but at least we have options. Some aren’t so lucky and we hear about people suffering from malnutrition.
My mom calls and sounds like she has been crying. I ask if she’s okay and she tells me that she is. I know she is lying to me. My uncle takes the phone and goes into another room. I immediately know that something is wrong. My heart feels heavy for the rest of the day. I have a feeling that my family is acting weird and holding something back from me.
We receive internet connection just for limited periods throughout the day. Each time we are reconnected, I rush to text my friends, check the news online, and post on social media about what is happening to us. We are bombarded with the same questions about Hamas and the seventh of October. This shows a complete lack of understanding from the Western media about what is happening to us.
The internet is disconnected again. So like every other normal Palestinian family living through this struggle, we play cards while the stupid radio tells us what is happening via news reports.
I have the urge to ask my family if they know something that I should know about. But I hold back because I am scared that the news will break my heart. Instead, I go to the balcony so that I can listen to my favorite song. Hymn to Gentrification by Faraj Suleiman. This song feels like talking to someone who understands my agony.
My solitude is interrupted by a phone call from a friend. I pick up but it doesn’t connect so I leave it. I kept listening to the song and telling myself that everything is okay. I know that is a lie. I have a dreadful feeling in my stomach.
My phone rings again. It is the same friend. I pick up and this time we are connected. “Is it true that Maimana and her family have been killed?” My heart falls and shatters into a million little pieces. “No, no. Who said that?” I reply, while tears fill my eyes. “Everyone,” he said back to me. I scream and the tears start falling from my eyes.
She was my very best friend. I loved no one like I loved her. At that moment I feel like I have lost everything. It hurts how you can be talking to someone and they get killed the next day. The memories we shared start playing back in my mind. I can hear her laugh. I remember singing in the car with her mum. It is all too much, and I break down.
This is the second time in as many weeks that I get the news about losing a loved one. The first time was my dear friend Abraham. He was unlike anyone else: funny, clever and with such a big heart. I can’t describe the feeling when you get this type of news. It’s shattering – like when you drop a plate and it breaks into many pieces.
It always gets worse at nighttime. That is when the horror begins. We all sleep together in the same room, because it feels safer. I try to sleep through the noises of heavy bombing sounds and news reports on the radio. My eyes get heavier and heavier. And then my mind eventually gives up and I drift off to sleep.
The next morning I wake up. But this time there is no annoying buzzing around the room. The fly had been scared away by the bombing overnight. And I get up to face another day of heartache and listening to my grandfather’s radio.