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Anti-Israel speaker roils Bloomfield Hills school

By Lisa Brody

A noted anti-Israeli Palestinian speaker at a diversity assembly at Bloomfield Hills High School on Tuesday, March 13, who made statements calling Israel an apartheid state, “an oppressor,” as well as denying Israel's existence, has left many Jewish students and others in the community upset and uncomfortable, with the school district seemingly unsure initially how to respond.

Superintendent Pat Watson responded on Thursday, March 16, following community turmoil, as school was ending, beginning in a letter to Bloomfield Hills students, staff and the community, “We made a mistake.”

The letter went on to apologize for allowing a conversation “that was not appropriate in a school setting.”

According to reports, a diversity group comprised of sophomores and juniors at the school, with the assistance of a faculty advisor, invited speakers to a diversity assembly for 10th graders. There were four separate assemblies for all students, with an American Chinese man, a transgender woman, an Indigenous individual, and Palestinian activist Huwaida Arraf invited to speak to students, supposedly to present different backgrounds and experiences.

According to an email sent to parents by Bloomfield Hills High School principal Lawrence Stoughter, “In preparation for this assembly, our student organizers and administrators met with each speaker to discuss the intent of the assembly and prompts. At the diversity assembly for the 10th graders, one of the speakers deviated from the prompts. Without prior knowledge of any of the organizers, the speaker discussed the conflict in Gaza from their own personal political perspective and experience. This discussion was outside of the parameters of the assembly and was addressed by the high school administration immediately after the speaker left the stage.”

Questions to Stoughter as to why Arraf was not cut short during her lecture, or why she was permitted to continue as a panelist for subsequent assemblies, where students, parents and faculty have made statements that she continued in a personal rant against Israel, were not responded to by him, and the district spokesperson said neither he nor superintendent Pat Watson could not be made available for interviews.

Arraf is is a Palestinian American activist and lawyer who co-founded the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led organization using non-violent protests, “direct action methods and principles” and international pressure to support Palestinians. She was the chair of the Free Gaza Movement, the organization behind the Gaza Freedom Flotillas, and has a history of controversial tweets. In 2022, she ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the 10th House Congressional district, losing to Carl Marlinga. She has referred to Zionists (those in favor of the state of Israel) as occupiers running an apartheid state, and accused Israel of genocide in the Gaza Strip.

In Watson's community letter, he said a diversity assembly had been held for all high school students, and that in preparation, “administration met with each of the five speakers to discuss the intent of the assembly and prompts. The prompt was to address an oppression or discrimination they have faced and what could the people around you have done to make this better? A guest speaker deviated from the prompts and discussed specific incidents, political in nature, which were outside of the parameters of the assembly and not their own lived experience.”

In a letter put out by Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee on Wednesday, March 15, they said how horrified they were that “known anti-Israeli activist Huwaida Arraf was invited to speak at Bloomfield Hills High School as part of the school's diversity initiative. Arraf gave four presentations over the span of the day – increasing her anti-Israel rhetoric and making Jewish students, of which there were many in attendance, extremely uncomfortable. Throughout her lecture, Arraf also denied Israel's existence – only referring to the land as Palestine.”

“The principal said the speaker went way off-script, but from brief research on the internet, it was easy to see she was a controversial choice. She takes an extremist stance of activities in the Middle East. I don't think the high school should be taking extremist stances on the Middle East, and if they are going to present something to students, they should present both sides,” said Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Starr said he found out about the diversity assemblies on Tuesday evening when “my phone began blowing up with people calling me. We cannot tolerate, dismiss, or remain silent in the face of antisemitism, no matter in what form it might appear. ”

“In a school of 'No Place for Hate,' antisemitic rhetoric was shared with our students and we recognize its devastating impact. For this we are very sorry,” Watson said. “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.”

A Bloomfield Hills High School parent said both she and her daughter are very upset over the assembly, noting she has emailed the principal, superintendent and the school board without response.

“It seemed like there was an agenda,” the parent said, asking who vetted the speakers, including Arraf. “The kids aren't there by themselves, there's a faculty advisor. To read a book in school you have to get approval – so how was she approved? How did she do three more assemblies?”

She noted that while many Jewish student comprehend another perspective, other students do not.

Her daughter came home from school yesterday, she said, reporting that someone brought a Palestinian flag to school. “The Jewish kids aren't the ones you need to understand the Israeli point of view. If one side was presented, the other side should be as well. They need to educate the students and the staff. It's just like a debate team.”

On the afternoon of Thursday, March 16, an email exchange among some students was circulated to “Wear something for Palestine,” on Friday, March 17. “With all the recent backlash from the Palestinian speaker at the Diversity Assembly, please wear something in support of Palestine this Friday, to give a chance for all members of the Arab community to have their voices heard.”

Suggested items are kefiyah, flags, shirts or anything else they have.

Watson emphasized in his letter that going forward they have outlined corrective measures, such as “school-wide mandatory assemblies and other student-led programming will be supervised by adults with intention and purpose, designed to generate a well-crafted, tightly designed message. As part of this, we are committed to a complete redesign of our vetting process for guests within the school community. We are working on this urgently.

“We are committed to plan and implement staff training to identify antisemitism and Islamophobia at its core and how to help students navigate these issues. These and other forms of hate must be addressed in order for us to foster a healthy educational environment.”

Rabbi Starr agrees, recognizing the importance of diversity and diversity training. “The goal should be to learn more about people and to open our hearts, but not to engage in propaganda, discrimination and hatred.”


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