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London teen faces barrage of online abuse after prize-winning speech on Palestine

Palestinian Leanne Mohamad, 15, won a regional final of the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge with an impassioned and eloquent speech that was met with hatred from pro-Israel trolls.
Student Leanne Mohamad, 15,  delivered her 'Birds Not Bombs' speech on May 19.
Student Leanne Mohamad, 15, delivered her 'Birds Not Bombs' speech on May 19.

LONDON // The organisers of a high-profile public speaking competition for young people took down an online video of a prize-winning speech by a 15-year-old London-based Palestinian girl after pro-Israel trolls accused her of “vicious blood libels against the state of Israel” and subjected her to a barrage of abusive comments.

On May 19, Leanne Mohamad, a pupil at Wanstead High School in East London, won a regional final of the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge with an impassioned and eloquent speech entitled Birds Not Bombs.

In the speech, Leanne told the story of her one-year-old cousin, whom she described as a Palestinian refugee, who had not been given treatment for a severe heart diseaseand had died in the past few weeks simply “because he was Palestinian”.

She went on to condemn the “aggression, oppression [and] injustice” meted out to Palestinians since the foundation of Israel and claimed that “since 1948, more than 30,000 innocent Palestinian children have been killed”.

She asked the audience: “How would you feel if every morning you were woken by bombs, not birds? How would you feel if you didn’t even feel safe in your own home?”

Two days later, Leanne was one of 37 regional winners who went on to the semi-final of the competition, which is organised by the charity Speakers Trust and staged annually among more than 18,000 schoolchildren in London and Essex.

Julie Holness, chief executive of the trust, told The National that a week later, after attention had been drawn to the video on May 27 by two pro-Israel bloggers, “Leanne suddenly started getting the most abusive comments”.

Several of the comments posted under Leanne’s video on the Speakers Trust website appeared to breach UK hate-speech laws, with one person calling her a “Jew-hating bitch”. The organisation immediately referred them to the police.

Leanne also received abusive messages on her own Twitter account, which was subsequently blocked. In her most recent Tweet, posted on Sunday, she wrote that she was “absolutely appalled to receive such hateful messages from adults on Twitter. I’m 15 years old, you should be ashamed.” The police, she added, had been notified.

“It was clear we had to do something immediately,” said Ms Holness. “This was about the protection of a minor.”

Ms Holness and two of her colleagues had been about to go on holiday but “we all cancelled and came in and agonised over what to do”, she said.

They tried in vain to reach Leanne, her parents and her school during the British half-term holiday and eventually “decided to pull the video down until we were able to put it back up with the comments disabled”.

The video was reinstated on Wednesday afternoon, with comments disabled and with authorisation from her family, the trust said.

On May 27, Ms Holness said, one of the bloggers had emailed her, posing as a well-known academic from the Jewish community. “He even gave a home address and appeared to copy in his wife,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is serious, the Jewish community are livid’, and I dropped everything and answered him very seriously.”

Her reply was then forwarded to the Jewish Chronicle, but some words had been changed, she says.

“He added the words that Leanne ‘had breached competition rules’, but that didn’t happen. There are no competition rules that anyone can breach, just the basic rules of public speaking.”

In fact the email writer was a blogger who posts as Edgar Davidson at edgar1981.blogspot.co.uk under the title “Confronting antisemitism and Israel hatred”.

In his email to the Speakers Trust, Mr Davidson claimed to be “a long-term supporter of the Jack Petchey Foundation”, the charitable organisation that funds the Speak Out Challenge. “What I was not aware of,” he added, “was that the charity was now in the business of supporting vicious blood libels against the State of Israel … You must surely be aware that supporting hateful and vicious political propaganda puts the Jack Petchey Foundation in breach of its Charity Commission obligations.”

On his blog, Mr Davidson claimed that the judging panel of the Speakers Trust had “decided unanimously against sending Leanne Mohamad through” to the final of the competition because “they had the same concerns to those I raised”.

Not true, says the trust. Leanne and 21 other semi-finalists simply did not make the final cut, a decision that was taken a week before the Jewish lobbying began.

Mr Davidson did not respond to a request for an interview.

The incident will come as an embarrassment to Sir Jack Petchey, an East End-born former second-hand car salesman turned multimillionaire who in January was knighted for his services to charity. Sir Jack, 90, is also a patron of British youth organisation the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade, which aims to develop “practical life skills [in] Jewish young people” and instil awareness of “Jewish identity, heritage and peoplehood, the awareness of the underlying unity that makes an individual Jew a component part of the Jewish people”.

In February Sir Jack married Frances Segelman, a sculptor who is his long-term partner. According to the Jewish Chronicle on February 25, “their nuptials were celebrated with a spirited Hava Nagila and some numbers from Fiddler on the Roof”.

Sandeep Shah, a spokesperson for the Jack Petchey Foundation, insisted that “Sir Jack did not play a part” in the decision to take down the video. “We work with organisations of all faiths and none,” he added.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: June 1, 2016 04:00 AM

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