Last week, a video of a 15-year-old student at Wanstead high-school in London named Leanne Mohamad went viral.
Leanne, a Palestinian, was taking part in the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge, where she won a regional final with her speech “Birds not Bombs”. The Jack Petchey-sponsored competition is an English competition run by Speakers Trust, and bills itself as the world’s biggest youth speaking event.
The speech concerned the violent reality of being Palestinian, and towards the end Leanne makes a chilling reference to her baby cousin of 1 year, who died a few weeks ago in Gaza due to a heart condition which required more medical attention than what was possible to offer in the besieged enclave.
But then an anti-Palestinian blogger named Edgar Davidson wrote to the Speakers Trust and claimed that Leanne’s three-minute speech consisted of “solid lies and blood libels”… “claiming that every day since 1948 (when the State of Israel was established) the ‘defenceless’ Palestinians have been slaughtered, with 30,000 children murdered”. His blog referring to the letter is titled “There is no future for British Jewry”.
Davidson was paraphrasing (and misquoting) on Leanne’s presentation in general, but he did take the “30,000 children murdered” on as a claim he would attack more directly in his next paragraph. But the argument he was countering was a strawman – Leanne did not say “murdered” but killed. Davidson thus went on to attack the strawman, writing: “For the record there are no verified instances of Palestinian children being ‘murdered’ by Israel, although many dozens have died as a result of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups launching unprovoked rocket attacks against Israeli civilians”. In order to bolster his claims by reliable sources such as Amnesty International, Davidson writes: “In fact, Amnesty International (an organisation that has traditionally been hostile to Israel) reported just this week that most of the child casualties of the 2014 conflict (that was started by Hamas) were actually killed by Hamas rockets falling short of their ‘target’”. But the Amnesty report that Davidson refers to was merely reporting one incident, where “a rocket salvo that killed 11 Gazan children and hit a hospital on a Muslim religious holiday was the work of Palestinian militants hitting their own people”. This does not even remotely account for “most” of the over 500 child deaths, as Davidson suggests.
Nonetheless, Davidson’s fictitious and disingenuous letter seems to have made a serious impression upon the Speakers Trust CEO Julie Holness, who took his concerns “very seriously”. Whilst she noted that the student speakers “are encouraged to speak out on something they feel passionately about and of course they bring with them their history and culture and beliefs”, she nonetheless noted that “there are, however, two fundamental rules that are made explicit during the training:
“- the speech must have a positive and uplifting message – in fact this is one of the core terms of the agreement with the Jack Petchey Foundation.
“- a speaker should never inflame or offend the audience or insult others and this, by definition, means that propaganda is ruled out absolutely from the outset.”
After responding to Davidson saying that his concerns were “exactly our concerns”, Holness ends with “if you wish to discuss this further you have my home office number below, which you are welcome to use at any time”.
So, Leanne’s message, which was emphatically opposed to racism and discrimination, calling for freedom (despite the tragic loss of her baby cousin) was apparently not “positive and uplifting” according to the trust. Furthermore, it seemed to have “inflamed and offended” the audience – which nonetheless seemed enthusiastic to the extreme in response to Leanne’s speech, as can be heard in the video. If it did not do any of that, it seems to have been deemed mere “propaganda”.
On the basis of these ‘findings’, and in “very serious” consideration of Davidson’s offense, the trust decided to override the school decision to send her on in the competition, effectively disqualifying her and taking her speech video down from their site as Davidson repeatedly asked them to. The Trust justified their overriding of Leanne’s regional victory by saying that “a speech that does not observe these ground rules may very rarely get through on passion and delivery”, thus supposedly fixing the unfortunate aberration.
But was Leanne exaggerating? I tried to find facts about child killings from 1948 – to be honest, it was a difficult task and I couldn’t directly corroborate Leanne’s figure of 30,000 children. I contacted UNICEF about it but was not able to get hard figures as of yet. Nonetheless, statistics from 2000 do exist. And the Palestinian death total is around 9,000, with child deaths constituting about 20%. But Leanne refers also to other kinds of deaths – indirect ones – due to the conditions Palestinians are under. She did not say they children were “murdered”, but rather killed – and refers to her baby cousin as an example of an indirect death due to the occupation. If we consider the general conditions in Gaza for example, it could be useful to note that a 2012 report jointly issued by aid organizations Save the Children and Britain’s Medical Aid for Palestinians found that “ten percent of children under 5 have stunted growth due to prolonged exposure to malnutrition. Anemia, caused by an iron-deficiency, affects 58.6 percent of schoolchildren, 68.1 percent of children nine to 12 months old and 36.8 percent of pregnant mothers…. Incidents of water sanitation-related illnesses such as typhoid fever and diarrhea have increased sharply with cases doubling in children under the age of 3, which will carry with it long-term health implications…Gaza’s medical facilities are underfunded, outdated and lack essential supplies. Travel restrictions make it difficult for Gazans to seek medical treatment elsewhere”.
We could discuss the figures and the statistics. But this does not at all seem to be the concern of Davidson or the Speakers Trust. Their concerns seem to be more McCarthyite “associations”. It seems that if Leanne was allowed to speak, the Trust would be accused of supporting “anti-Semitic propaganda”. It does not matter that Davidson has trumped up fictitious and malicious charges against the girl. It does not matter that Davidson is a man who praises the English Defence League-founder Tommy Robinson as “heroic”. The Speakers Trust still take his concerns “very seriously”.
But Leanne – she’s done a terrible thing. She’s referred to the Nakba. In response to the disqualification, Leanne tweeted (29th May) “Why is it called a “Speak Out Challenge” when I am then silenced?”
A petition has just gone out demanding a reinstatement of Leanne in the competition.