A 15-year-old girl has been accused of “blood libel” after making a pro-Palestinian speech in a competition for schoolchildren in London.
Leanne Mohamed, from Ilford, won the Redbridge borough final in the Jack Petchey “Speak Out” Challenge but footage of her entry has sparked fierce debate and online abuse.
In the speech, entitled “Birds Not Bombs”, she said her family was Palestinian and spoke of the death of her one-year-old cousin after relatives struggled to access medical treatment in Gaza.
“How would you feel if you were woken every morning by bombs and not birds…if for 68 years they bombed your land, took away your genuine human rights and killed your families and children?” she asked the audience.
Accusing the Israeli government of “aggression, oppression and injustice”, she claimed that 30,000 Palestinian children had been killed.
“I am Palestinian and I am human - I shouldn’t have to remind the world of that,” Leanne said before condemning discrimination of any kind.
She ended the speech by saying “free Palestine” and raising a Palestinian flag, to applause and cheers from the audience.
Footage of her speech sparked a furious reaction from some online commentators.
Articles on the Israellycool website called it an “Isis recruiting video” that amounted to “blood libel”.
Other critics said Leanne did not give evidence for some of her claims, particularly on children’s deaths, and failed to balance her argument with information on terror attacks against Israelis.
The Wanstead High School pupil received widespread support on Twitter but was also labelled an “antisemite” and “advocate for suicide bombers”.
“If the Islamist scum is old enough to be on Twitter and spout lies she's old enough to be ridiculed,” one person wrote.
As hundreds of people continued to tweet about her speech, Leanne said she had reported online abuse to police.
“Absolutely appalled to receive such hateful messages from adults on Twitter,” she wrote. “I'm 15 years old, you should be ashamed.”
But she also thanked people for their “wonderful support”.
Wes Streeting, the Labour MP for Ilford North, said he was concerned about Leanne’s treatment and condemned the “appalling abuse”.
“Her speech was a powerful argument about human rights, drawing on her own Palestinian heritage and arguing against discrimination based on nationality, race and culture,” he said.
“I saw nothing in it that could reasonably considered to be antisemitic, or hate speech.
“Her underlying message was one about peace and I think that's something we can all support.”
Bob Hamlyn, the head of Wanstead High School, told the Ilford Recorder that Leanne and her family were receiving pastoral support.
The Speakers Trust, which runs the public speaking competition with the Jack Petchey Foundation also generated controversy by removing the video of her speech from its YouTube channel, but later reinstated it following consultation with Leanne’s family, saying the move aimed to “safeguard a minor”.
More than 7,000 people signed an online petition demanding the video be put back online with a letter saying the teenager had been “silenced”.
In a joint statement, organisers said Leanne was chosen as the Redbridge Regional Final winner on 19 May and had her speech posted online alongside other contenders the following week.
She was not among the 15 speakers chosen by the judging panel to progress to the competition’s grand final.
Organisers denied rumours she had been “banned” and said the decision was made without external influence and before the online furore emerged.
“Following vile and hateful comments posted online during this Bank Holiday weekend Speakers Trust removed the video of Leanne’s speech. We will not tolerate trolling of young people,” the statement said.
“In our society people have the right to hold and express different views or perspectives.
“It is important that young people can express these, challenge and question in an appropriate manner and learn to live with each other in peace.”