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Post-speaker program, Michigan school district to train staff on antisemitism, Islamophobia

After the principal bungled an apology, the Bloomfield Hills School District cited “an increase in incidents related to both our Jewish and Muslim student body” but wouldn’t elaborate.

Bloomfield Hills High School in the western suburbs of Detroit. Credit: ajay_suresh via Wikimedia Commons.
Bloomfield Hills High School in the western suburbs of Detroit. Credit: ajay_suresh via Wikimedia Commons.

Two weeks later, parents in a school district in one of Detroit’s most heavily Jewish suburbs are still reeling after a diversity event that was deemed mandatory for students took an antisemitic turn.

One of the official speakers was Huwaida Arraf, 47, who ran unsuccessfully last year for Michigan’s 10th congressional district. An attorney and Palestinian activist, she has tweeted that Israel is a “colonial, apartheid regime” that committed “ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Jerusalem.”

At the official March 14 event at Bloomfield Hills High School, Arraf called Zionists “occupiers running an apartheid state” and said Israel committed genocide in the Gaza Strip, according to the Detroit Jewish News, which reviewed a video of the event. She also “denied Israel’s existence, only referring to the land as Palestine.”

Although Arraf spoke during four sessions, teachers and administrators did not intervene. Her “anti-Israel rhetoric” made the many Jewish students in attendance “extremely uncomfortable, fearful and attacked,” according to the Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee (JCRC/AJC) in Detroit.

Lawrence Stroughter, the school’s principal who has since been placed on leave, issued a statement on March 14 that the speaker, who “deviated from the prompts without prior knowledge by any of the organizers,” spoke about the “conflict in Gaza” from her “personal political perspective and experience.”

He added: “We denounce any speech that targets individuals or groups based on religion.”

Huwaida Arraf. Credit: Indiana Center for Middle East Peace via Wikimedia Commons.

Critics noted that his statement did not mention the words “antisemitism,” “Israel” or “Jewish.” At the time, the JCRC/AJC stated that it was disappointed with the statement and was “stunned that Bloomfield Hills High School would offer someone like Arraf a platform in the first place.”

Arraf said that “her comments were focused on the State of Israel and not the Jewish people themselves” and noted that she is married to a Jewish man, reported FOX2 in Detroit.

‘There’s incredible divisiveness in this room’

At a three-hour special meeting of the board of education of Bloomfield Hills Schools on March 20, many parents were not buying that explanation.

“You have failed my Jewish children and their Muslim friends. You have failed myself and my husband, and both of our parents, who fled the former USSR because of antisemitism,” one mother said.

“Our school administration failed our kids, plain and simple,” another woman said.

“I don’t know how you put the genie back in the bottle. I don’t know how you put the toothpaste back in the tube,” added a man. “There’s incredible divisiveness in this room.”

Another said that the district—and schools everywhere—ought to focus on math, science, reading and writing, not diversity and politics. A former middle-school principal in the district said the event created a “hostile environment,” but students who planned it said the speaker’s remarks had been misconstrued and that she is not antisemitic.

Another mother said her daughter received a message on social media: “Hey. KYS. Thanks. Free Palestine. Hitler was right.” KYS stands for “kill yourself,” she said. When the mom added that “anti-Israel rhetoric promotes antisemitism and therefore is very much against Jewish people,” the board had to remind a jeering audience to remain quiet.

Students and alumni who identified themselves as Palestinian spoke of what they called Israeli atrocities, and said that the Bloomfield Hills School District curbs the self-expression of Muslim and pro-Palestinian students. Several noted “Free Palestine” apparel was anathema, while students could wear Israel Defense Forces sweatshirts.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin. Credit: JCRC/AJC Detroit.

‘Counter to the narrative’

Pat Watson, the superintendent who came under fire from many speakers, including calls for his resignation, said there had been 17 reports of hate directed at students since the event. (During a March 23 meeting, he said there had been three more.)

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the JCRC/AJC, and representatives of the local Muslim Unity Center voiced concerns at the meeting. Lopatin told JNS that Watson has been working closely with the Jewish community, and he assumes the superintendent has done the same with others “to make things right.”

“The leadership of the Muslim Unity Center—and in my estimate, the vast majority of the Muslim community in Detroit—is committed to good relations and partnership with the Jewish community locally, and not letting our disagreements on issues in the Middle East stop us from working together for the benefit of all our communities in Detroit,” Lopatin told JNS.

In a letter the board read at the meeting, an imam at the Muslim Unity Center expressed horror about “instances of peer-based bullying, intimidation and threats of violence targeting Muslim and Arab students at BHHS.” The letter noted that Muslim students were suspended and questioned about their political and religious views.

Students told the center they are being silenced and ignored “because they hold views on a topic that may run counter to the narrative as it is portrayed by pro-Israeli or anti-Palestinian constituents in our community,” per the letter, which a board read prior to live public comments.

The center added that Arraf’s comments during the school event “ were pertinent to the topic provided and discussed with her by the school administration.”

In his public comments, Lopatin urged those gathered and school officials to “help students understand that they are one community.”

“The school must be a place where students model disagreement with safety, friendship, respect and acceptance. They should model it for us, for the adults,” he said.

The ADL’s “No Place for Hate” campaign in schools and elsewhere has been an important resource for communities seeking to combat racial and religious bias. Source: Screenshot.

Of the school event, Liora Rez, executive director of the watchdog StopAntisemitism, told JNS that administrators should have stepped in to prevent Arraf from “spewing anti-Israel bigotry.” Instead, they let her “finish her radical, anti-Zionist remarks, subjecting her heavily Jewish audiences to hate.”

The school’s initial apology was “unacceptably anodyne,” she added.

Watson, the superintendent, penned a letter to the community on March 16. “We made a mistake,” he wrote. He noted the error took place in a “No Place for Hate” school, an Anti-Defamation League initiative.

“Antisemitic rhetoric was shared with our students, and we recognize the devastating impact. For this we are very sorry,” Watson wrote in the March 16 letter. “We also recognize that in the aftermath many others were hurt as well. We apologize for failing to guide our student organizers properly. We regret that we allowed the speaker to continue their presentation.”

To make things right, the school will implement “staff training to identify antisemitism and Islamophobia at its core and help students navigate these issues,” wrote Watson.

The district responded to a query from JNS but did not explain what incidents in the aftermath of the official event targeted Muslim students. It also did not say why it appeared to equate antisemitism and Islamophobia training in response to the event’s aftermath with the district’s and school’s response to comments from an official speaker. (Antisemitism is often seen as requiring chaperones.)

A much smaller group of parents turned out for a March 23 meeting of the district’s school board. “Do we feel like we are being heard? No,” posed a parent. “The silence has been deafening at this point.”

“Sure, a couple of hours ago, before tonight’s meeting, we received an email that Mr. Stroughter is going to be on leave starting in April,” she said. “But is he on leave because he chose to be on leave? Is he on leave because he was forced to be on leave? How do we know that after 10 long days, a single actionable item has actually taken place?”

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