Gillian Keegan gives a speech during the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, 2021 Gillian Keegan gives a speech during the United Nations Climate Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, 2021. Photo: UK Government / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

A Tory minister is attacking teachers’ debates on Palestine. Alex Snowdon has marked her homework and argues there is a lot of room for improvement  

Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, has done something rather unusual: she has commented publicly on a specific motion submitted for debate at the National Education Union’s annual conference. She has done this before NEU conference has even begun – it starts on Wednesday in Bournemouth.  

The motion is on Palestine and – together with six proposed amendments – it is the focus of Keegan’s criticism. The motion and amendments were also the subject of several newspaper articles, including in the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian, at the weekend. As one of the delegates involved in drafting them, it is flattering to be on the receiving end of such illustrious attention. 

I am not very impressed by Keegan’s grasp of the material though. Her case is poorly argued, dishonest and at odds with the evidence.  

To begin with, she is wrong to object to the motion characterising Israel’s current government as ‘racist’. It is near-universally recognised as a very right-wing, racist administration containing far-right and supremacist elements.  

South Africa’s legal team submitted, as evidence to the International Court of Justice, numerous statements by Israeli politicians that are extremely racist and genocidal in intent. This was a major basis for the court’s provisional ruling that Israel has a case to answer on genocide.  

It is also strange for Keegan to criticise the motion’s reference to Israel’s ‘apartheid policies.’ Three major human rights organisations – B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International – have in recent years produced substantial reports documenting Israel’s apartheid policies.  

Amnesty researchers devoted years to collating evidence of apartheid policies applied by Israel, concluding that it is guilty of the crime of apartheid under international law. Their use of the apartheid framework was echoed by South Africa in its submissions to the ICJ. South Africa is a country that knows about apartheid.  


Keegan’s basic comprehension skills appear to be lacking. She falsely claims that the motion makes no mention of Hamas’ actions on 7th October 2023. These are referred to in the opening line of the motion and later referred to as ‘deplorable and preventable’.  

Keegan has suggested that the NEU motion is ‘unrepresentative’ of teachers and their views. Opinion polls indicate strong support for a ceasefire and high levels of disapproval of Israel’s conduct. Teachers will be no different from the wider public.  

If the education secretary thinks that revulsion at Israel’s genocidal violence, which has killed thousands of children and involved the widespread bombing of schools, is not shared by most teachers, I suggest she visits some staffrooms and listens to what teachers have to say. This is, in truth, part of a wider effort to create a ‘chilling effect’ in schools, whereby teachers feel reluctant to even raise the issues around Palestine and Israel for fear of condemnation.  

That is why the motion’s call for more educational resources, to increase pupils’ understanding of these issues, is very welcome. It is also why the amendments criticising the use of Prevent to stigmatise solidarity with Palestine are important. Schools ought to be safe spaces for learning about challenging and important issues in our world.  

Keegan resorts to the familiar smear of antisemitism, yet the NEU unconditionally opposes antisemitism – as it opposes all forms of racism. There is nothing ‘divisive’ about opposing a racist apartheid regime and its war crimes, as Keegan claims. It is divisive to support and enable apartheid abroad while deploying Islamophobic rhetoric at home, as this government continues to do.  

It is also absurd to propose that teachers must remain ‘neutral’ in the face of grave injustice. To do so would be complicity in such injustice. We are partisan for justice against injustice, peace against war, anti-racism against racism.  

On Saturday, I travelled from Northumberland to London for yet another massive national demonstration opposing the genocide in Gaza. I marched as part of the trade union bloc to demand an immediate ceasefire and freedom for Palestine. NEU general secretary Daniel Kebede addressed the rally in Trafalgar Square.  

I have no doubt that on Thursday the Palestine motion will be passed with overwhelming support by delegates. We are right to take a stand on Palestine and to be part of the mass movement for peace and justice. We must defy the scaremongering and attacks from the government and their supportive media.  

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).