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Auckland Diocesan School for Girls (Design: Archi Banal)
Auckland Diocesan School for Girls (Design: Archi Banal)

OPINIONSocietyNovember 9, 2023

It’s OK to talk about Palestine: a letter to my alma mater 

Auckland Diocesan School for Girls (Design: Archi Banal)
Auckland Diocesan School for Girls (Design: Archi Banal)

Why is a school that promises its students ‘the courage and confidence to positively shape the future’ so intent on silencing their voices, asks Sophie Barclay.

Dear Dio,

As a former student of Diocesan School for Girls, I am shocked and deeply disappointed by the actions taken against the two teachers convening a lunchtime group of students to support Palestine. Not only was the gathering stopped before it began, the situation is now being treated as “an employment matter“.

During my years at Diocesan (I graduated in 2004), we did not shy away from talking about world issues, war and politics. I remember lunchtimes where students would gather up our gold coins (otherwise destined for the tuck shop) in support of Amnesty International and helping to fight human rights abuses. I remember discussing war and the “Palestine-Israel conflict” during history classes. My teachers were not silenced. 

I am pleased to see that human rights advocacy at Dio has continued since I left. Last year on April 4 the school held Ukraine Day, an entire day in solidarity with the victims of war in Ukraine. Blue and yellow doves were handed out for students to write messages of solidarity on, there was a student bake sale, a mural, poems, and a donation made by the school to the Ukraine Crisis Appeal. Yet on RNZ last week, the school’s principal, Heather McRae, said that gathering for collective action for Palestine is “support[ing] political division or disharmony”. Please, dear Dio, can you explain how running events in solidarity with Ukraine is any different? 

I am deeply concerned that the school perceives that the action of offering a space for students to gather “to express solidarity for Palestine” is inappropriate, given the following:

– Children are the main victims of Israel’s attack on Gaza, with more than 40% of the over 10,000 Palestinian victims of the current conflict being children

– According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the attacks on Gaza by the state of Israel have targeted hospitals, killing vulnerable people and reducing services for those who are wounded, and telecommunications centres, shutting down the internet, and placing “the civilian population in grave danger.”

– The attacks also limit the entry of aid trucks carrying things like medical supplies, clean water, and food into Gaza. 

– The head of the UN agency for Palestinian Refugees, Phillippe Lazzarini, told the UN emergency meeting on Monday, October 30, that “an immediate humanitarian cease-fire has become a matter of life and death for millions,” accusing the state of Israel of “collective punishment” of Palestinians and the forced displacement of civilians, and yet:

– There is no ceasefire. 

Gaza, October 25, 2023 (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Let me be clear here. The unprecedented and unexpected attack on communities in southern Israel that left more than 1,400 dead, more than 200 taken as hostages and many more injured, was an act of terrorism. It was a heinous, awful, inexcusable act that also violates international human rights law, due to the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of noncombatants, including children, and the abduction of about 200 others as hostages and human shields in Gaza.

And yet, following this heinous terrorist attack, Israel itself began a relentless retaliation, committing crimes under international humanitarian law including “instructions issued by the Israeli authorities for the population of Gaza City to immediately leave their homes, coupled with the complete siege, explicitly denying them food, water and electricity”.

There is a difference between a terrorist group violating international human rights law and a nation state violating international human rights law. The same day as the terrorist attack, Israel launched a relentless bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 10,000 people, injured nearly 23,000 (in Gaza alone) stopped 14 out of 35 hospitals and 71% of primary care facilites from operating

So, why wouldn’t we offer a space to organise and take action against this retaliation that targets a civilian population, an alarming number of whom are children? Why shouldn’t we talk and discuss the fact that Israel this week received an additional $14.5 billion military aid package from the US? Why shouldn’t we teach children to write to their local MP and call for a ceasefire when Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant orders a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip (home to more than 2 million people, many of whom can not leave their homes due to age or physical disabilities)? Why shouldn’t we think about encouraging our young people to take action when the state of Israel refuses, despite pleas from the international community and the UN, to offer a ceasefire, thus jeopardising the lives of millions?

As a graduate of the masters in teaching and learning, I believe that it is a school’s duty to offer chances for students to learn about civic engagement and how to engage with our political process; how to make change and make the world a better place by using our voices. I would expect Diocesan to encourage this. Now, more than ever, we need critical thinkers, people who question media narratives and are passionate about civic engagement and political action in support of human rights. 

And yet my former school has passed up this incredible learning opportunity by shutting down a very important conversation and infringing on the rights of students and teachers alike. Instead of instilling fear in teachers and students about discussing a “controversial topic”, the school could have taken the opportunity to offer a safe space for an interfaith dialogue, where Jewish students could also talk about their points of view (and rightly mourn Israeli victims of the conflict), but with peace and the attainment of a ceasefire as the focus.

I honestly expected more from a school that claims in its Strategic Direction document that “everything we do helps to instil in every Dio girl the courage and confidence to positively shape the future” and encourages its students to follow “ways of Jesus Christ through love, service, peace, justice and hope”.  Now more than ever, we need peace. We need justice for Palestinians. 

I feel I should also remind you that supporting the rights of civilians under siege is not being anti-Semitic; that being pro-Palestinian is not being anti-Semitic; and that being pro-human rights, and pro the rights of the children in Gaza, is not being anti-Semitic. We all must remember this, and not be afraid to question, to investigate and to work together to change things. And certainly we must not suggest that allowing Diocesan students to publicly empathise with a population being killed in their thousands is akin to enabling “views that create or support political division or disharmony”.

In a statement, principal Heather McRae said that Diocesan is a school that “supports victims of war and conflict and prays for peace in the world”. While praying for peace is a nice idea, concrete action through civic engagement is a better skill for our young women of the future to learn. 

My hope is that Diocesan School for Girls will continue to inspire young women to engage in world issues and ask big questions, and, as you put it, to lead boldly, so students can do the same.

Yours sincerely, 

Sophie Barclay

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