Analysis: When lobbying power and the false pursuit of consensus trumps learning

Ben Wray

CommonSpace editor Ben Wray says the deputy First Minister John Swinney should consider his handling of the Israel-Palestine learning and teaching resources three year saga, and ask himself whether he has badly let down Scotland’s Palestinian community

OUR story on the three year saga over the development of Israel-Palestine educational resources in Scotland is revealing of two fundamental problems.

1) The problem of seeking “consensus” and “neutrality” in a situation of deep historical injustice. This is doubly problematic in the context of producing high quality educational resources for schools, where accuracy and clarity must be prioritized to effectively aid learning.

2) The problem of privileged lobbying interests gaining disproportionate access and influence at the expense of others, in this case of Scotland’s children and teachers.

Let’s remember where this began. Pupils in North Lanarkshire were being handed homework depicting Palestinians as “separatist terrorists”. It was right that the council apologised and that the Scottish Government resolved to provide high quality education materials on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

READ MORE: Swinney shuts down Israel-Palestine school resources after lobbying pressure

And therefore it logically follows that it is wrong that, three years later, teachers have still not been provided with the necessary material to teach pupils properly. The Palestinian community are understandably aggrieved that a clear case of demonisation of Palestinians has not been seriously addressed, despite three years of effort on their part to engage constructively in what they believed was a genuine process to do so. The fact that the Palestinian community has had to find out what happened through letters and FoIs rather than regular correspondence is even more troubling.

The documentation that CommonSpace has read on this three year debacle over the development of the educational resources shows a very clear picture: academics, education professionals, parents, pupils and the Palestinian community all thought to one degree or another that the materials were worthwhile and to a sufficient quality for classrooms.

Some (not all) Jewish and pro-Israeli groups disagreed passionately. As is their right. But the idea – introduced half-way through this three year process – that it is completely necessary to have a total consensus across all stakeholders on such an issue as the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict is farcical.

This is a live conflict. As I write the demolition of the Palestinian community Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank to make way for an Israeli settlement could begin any minute. Many consider it to be the final death blow of the two-state solution. There is no way that pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian communities are going to have the same view of what brought us to a situation where Israeli settler colonialism is brutally seizing what is left of historic Palestine.




It seems obvious from the documentation that Education Scotland officials are well aware that an attempt to operate on the basis of consensus was silly, not least because the Jewish and pro-Israeli groups which were opposed from the start to the very idea of producing education materials on this issue were clearly immovable. That’s why an Education Scotland official said in May this year “we must reconsider this need for consensus”.

To be clear, an academic consensus exists. An Education professional consensus exists. That’s why the materials, which were available to teachers for two months between March-May 2017, were “quality approved” by Education Scotland. Surely it is this professional consensus that matters when it comes to producing high-quality education?

Apparently the Deputy First Minister decided that he disagrees, after a meeting with the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities in May last year. As late as April this year Education Scotland were saying Swinney is still committed to producing this education material, but the Scottish Government’s statement to CommonSpace today casts serious doubt on whether he retains that commitment.

Since the Scottish Government has offered no explanation to us as to why the education material was removed, and why Swinney called a halt to the review into the material in August, we can only speculate. His decision to pause all work on the materials came at just the time in which the Labour anti-Semitism crisis was reaching fever pitch. Coincidence?

It’s important to look at exactly what sort of politics the deputy First Minister has been succesfully lobbied by. Consultation responses from some pro-Israeli and Jewish lobby groups included the view that “sources such as the UN are not reliable”. Is it this sort of Trumpian logic reasonable? Presumably, if Swinney thinks so, he’ll be contacting his counterparts in Stormont and the Oireachtast to let them know, after Scottish Friends of Israel accused an organisation which helped produce Israel-Palestine school resources in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland of being “anti-Semities”.

But perhaps the most damning aspect of the opposition to the Israel-Palestine educational materials is the idea that it is not possible to ever produce high-quality educational resources on this issue without causing hurt for Muslim and Jewish school children. This is totally wrongheaded – ignorance allows Islamophobia and antisemitism to flourish, and education is a big part of addressing racism. Judaism is not the cause of the suffering in Gaza and the West Bank just as Sunni Islam is not the cause of Shia Muslim suffering or visa-versa. But you are less likely to know this if you don’t understand the real issues. And that requires a concerted attempt to teach them.

Picture courtesy of British High Commission, New Delhi