Breaking news: Person says controversial thing at public speaking competition

In Jerusalem, right now, military chiefs are gathering in a bunker. Prime Minister Netanyahu is linked in by video. Sweating, shaking with fear, he calls the meeting to order.

“Gentlemen. We are gathered here to discuss a new and serious threat to the very existence of our nation. She’s a 15-year-old girl and she lives in Wanstead, London.”

Oh no, wait. That’s exactly what didn’t happen. The Israeli establishment reacted to teenaged Leanne Mohamed’s anti-Israel speech – at the prestigious Jack Petchey public speaking competition – exactly as they should have done: by ignoring it.

If only the rest of the Jewish world had followed suit. But no. In fact, Leanne has had to involve the police following a staggeringly vitriolic wave of hatred. She was called an “Isis recruiter” and a “Jew hater”. She was told she had perpetrated a “blood libel”. Her family have been relentlessly targeted by abuse.

Her school has had to close its social media accounts after being overwhelmed with tweets accusing them of radicalising their pupils. There have been police complaints made against the headteacher for “supporting terrorism”, and he’s been reported to the regulator Ofsted. (Not that it’s clear what the school was supposed to have done: employed someone to censor all competitors’ speeches before they were made, and then employed someone else to adjudicate any disputes over the facts of the Middle East conflict?)

And the contagion spread. Wes Streeting, Leanne’s local MP and a great friend of the Jewish community spoke out to condemn the abuse, and there followed calls for him to be suspended from the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism (as part of which he is a tireless campaigner against, er, anti-Semitism).

Make no mistake, Leanne’s speech was really quite nasty. She included several blatant factual inaccuracies, including a suggestion that Israel has deliberately targeted and killed over 30,000 Palestinian children. There is no doubt about it, such a speech was highly objectionable.

But it was a public speaking competition. That’s where people make objectionable speeches. For all we know, some of the other teenaged participants might have spoken against abortion, or in favour of abortion, or about vivisection or freemasonry or [audible gasp] Brexit.

And also… we’re talking about Wanstead High School here. So Leanne told some untruths. Naughty. That reflects badly on her. But it’s not like she was addressing the UN Security Council. It was not the front page of The Guardian. The audience consisted of a bunch of teachers at a B-division comprehensive school in a suburb at the far end of the Central line. Offensive as the speech was, Israel can probably live to see another day.

Those so-called friends of Israel who were particularly incensed at Leanne’s suggestion that the IDF engages in disproportionate military action.

But where is the proportionality in their response? If this is how they react to a short speech by a 15-year-old schoolchild, how would they have reacted if they’d been around in the 1940s? They seem to be at maximum fury already. There’s nowhere else for them to go.

Victimising children like this is totally and always unacceptable. Even if they cross a line. That’s what childhood is about. Rebut her speech, please; it was full of holes and pointing those out is clearly a good idea and, apart from anything, will educate Leanne.

But shouting and screaming and calling her vile names and persecuting her teachers and bullying her family, when she poses no threat whatsoever and just said something disagreeable… that’s the way Isis would behave. Not people supporting the continued existence of a Jewish and democratic state.

About the Author
Gabriel Webber is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, London
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