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East London’s Jewish community in ‘state of fear’ as Palestinian flags fly outside schools

Swanlea Secondary School in Whitechapel, east London, had one flag flying outside its main gate and another at its year 10/year 11 entrance
Swanlea Secondary School in Whitechapel, east London, had one flag flying outside its main gate and another at its year 10/year 11 entrance - Jeff Gilbert

Walking through the borough of Tower Hamlets in east London, it is clear to see on which side most residents’ sympathies lie in the Israel conflict.

On high streets, in parks, outside shops, and at school gates, the red, green, black and white Palestinian flag is everywhere to be seen – flying high from lamp posts as a symbol of solidarity for those fighting and dying 2,200 miles away in Gaza.

The flags’ proximity to primary and secondary schools, in a borough where 40 per cent of the population is Muslim, according to the latest census, have provoked fear and worry among Jewish parents and campaigners who say these flags are a deliberate attempt to “indoctrinate” children and endanger pupils.

One Jewish family said they had been forced to send their children to be educated in another borough because they could not “guarantee their safety” in Tower Hamlets.

Another family from Wapping said graffiti daubed outside their local primary school that read: “Israel = Scum” was not cleaned away for two weeks.

Tower Hamlets council is facing legal action over its refusal to take down the flags. Lawyers claim the decision is a “criminal offence” and breaches equality and education legislation.

A Palestinian flag at Rangers Kindergarten, a nursery in Bethnal Green
A Palestinian flag at Rangers Kindergarten, a nursery in Bethnal Green - Eddie Mulholland

Lutfur Rahman, the borough’s mayor, had previously been barred from public office for five years for corruption, but having served his ban was voted back into the post in elections in May 2022.

The Telegraph observed 10 schools with Palestinian flags near or directly outside their entrances. A further eight had flags hanging high up from lamp posts within 65ft of their grounds, in clear view of classrooms and playgrounds.

The Telegraph also observed one Palestinian flag flying from a tree inside the grounds of a nursery.

Opposite one Catholic primary school, stickers reading: “IDF [Israel Defence Forces] BABY KILLERS!” were stuck on to railings.

There is no suggestion any of the schools had planted the flags themselves or gave permission for them.

Tower Hamlets, which has one of largest proportions of Muslims of any local authority in the UK, has witnessed a huge proliferation of Palestinian flags flown across the borough since the conflict in Gaza escalated following the Oct 7 attacks.

‘Lifelong prejudice’ towards Jews

A group of lawyers supportive of Israel has written to Scotland Yard asking the force to intervene.

Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UK Lawyers for Israel, said the flags risked indoctrinating pupils with having a “lifelong prejudice” towards Jews.

He said: “It is concerning that these flags are so prominently displayed near school entrances.

“It must be intimidating for Jewish children at these schools, and stickers such as ‘IDF Baby Killers’ incite hatred which could result in violence and other forms of bullying.

“The flags also contribute to indoctrination which may inculcate lifelong prejudice.

“In my view, Tower Hamlets Council is committing a criminal offence in failing to remove the flags and stickers.”

Mr Turner said the Council had a duty to “foster good relations between different ethnic, national and religious groups”.

The council could also be in breach of the Education Act 1996 that requires pupils to be offered a “balanced presentation of opposing views” when they are faced with political issues, he added.

At Rangers Kindergarten, a nursery in Bethnal Green, a Palestinian flag was seen tied to a tree with a black cable inside the fenced and gated playground.

The nursery has been approached for comment.

Jamiatul Ummah Boys School, an all-boys independent Muslim school in Shadwell, which charges up to £4,600 per academic year, had a Palestinian flag outside its entrance. A further five flags were seen flying from lamp posts along the stretch of road.

Ofsted inspectors in 2016 had failed the school after discovering extreme literature in its library that promoted stoning to death.

Jamiatul Ummah Boys School in Shadwell said the Palestinian flag outside its entrance was a matter for the council
Jamiatul Ummah Boys School in Shadwell said the Palestinian flag outside its entrance was a matter for the council

Jamiatul Ummah later removed the texts, saying it condemned “all forms of extremism”.

Nojarul Islam, the school’s principal, said they categorically have “no knowledge” of anyone from the school’s community, including pupils, parents, staff, governors or trustees putting up any flags outside the school premises.

He said: “The flags are not within our immediate school boundary and in a public space” and stressed it was a matter for the council.

Swanlea Secondary School in Whitechapel had one flag flying outside its main gate and another at its year 10/year 11 entrance. The school has been approached for comment.

Mulberry Stepney Green Maths, Computing & Science College, an academy school, had one Palestinian flag next to its entrance in front of a sign promoting a sixth form open day. Another flag was also seen on the immediate opposite street outside of a youth centre. The school has been approached for comment.

‘Oppressive and intimidating’

Stickers which read, in bold capitals, “IDF BABY KILLERS!” were stuck on public railings opposite Our Lady & St Joseph Catholic Primary School, a Palestinian flag lay nearby, visible from the classrooms and playground. The school has been approached for comment.

Other schools which also had flags near to entrances included Stepney All Saints School, Oaklands School in Bethnal Green, George Green’s Secondary School in the Isle of Dogs and St Paul’s Way Trust School in Bow Common.

A spokesman for St Paul’s Way said: “As an educational establishment that is directed by the Department for Education we are politically neutral. “We are unable to comment on any matter beyond the school boundary”.

All other schools have been approached for comment.

Several primary schools had Palestinian flags opposite school entrances including Mayflower Primary School, which was named State Primary School of the Year by The Sunday Times, and St Paul with St Luke Church of England Primary School. These have all been approached for comment.

Jewish residents in Tower Hamlets say they are living in a “total state of fear” from the sheer number of flags on display in the borough and feel their complaints to the council have fallen on deaf ears.

One couple, who wished to remain anonymous, said they had been forced to send their children to schools in a different borough because they could not “guarantee their safety” in Tower Hamlets.

“The flags, the posters, the local marches, local school walkouts and the council’s involvement in them, the council’s statements and inaction are the reasons for this”.

Another Jewish resident said the “oppressive and intimidating” flags meant they now felt “unwelcome for the first time” in the 20 years they have lived in the borough.

‘I feel afraid in my home’

In Wapping, a Jewish family said graffiti daubed outside their local primary school which read: “Israel = Scum” was not cleaned away for two weeks.

Another said: “We are living in a total state of fear in Tower Hamlets and we feel forgotten by the Jewish community.

“Just because we are a minority does not mean our distress should be ignored… I feel very very afraid in my own home, I am desperate for someone to please help.”

‘We reject gaslighting accusation’

The Tower Hamlets Palestine Solidarity Network, a grassroots group in the borough, said supporting Palestinians and raising awareness about its plight are “not illegal or offensive acts”.

“We reject any gaslighting accusation and the false narrative of intimidation.

“The council’s decision not to remove flags stand as evidence of community support, whilst community tensions are being closely monitored by the local community.”

‘Monitoring community tensions’

A spokesman for Tower Hamlets council said: “As one of the most diverse areas in the country, we are monitoring any community tensions closely with our tension monitoring group, which includes the police and representatives from a broad range of community organisations.

“A number of Palestinian flags have been put up by the public in recent months. While we appreciate people want to express their support for Palestine, we have a routine responsibility to monitor and maintain council infrastructure. The situation is under regular review.

“Separately to Palestinian flags, the council will remove at the earliest opportunity any graffiti, posters or flags which are racist or generally offensive.”

It comes after a primary school in Leyton, east London, told parents it may have to stop in-person teaching after its policy to ban children from wearing pro-Palestinian badges attracted bomb threats.

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