Speaker at high school’s diversity event sparks controversy in Jewish community
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. (WXYZ) — Controversy among parents in Bloomfield Hills after an event on high school diversity sparked criticism from the Jewish community. The Jewish Community Relations Council called out the district over a speaker they say was broadcasting anti-Israel messages, making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, afraid and offended.
“We know everyone has different political views, but bringing those views into a public school, forcing these things on them, that’s not the place,” said Robyn Stern, a 10th-grade parent at Bloomfield Hills High School.
She says she found out about the speaker Tuesday morning when she received a text message from her son, who was upset about what a speaker was saying during a diversity event.
“He and his friends weren’t sure what to do,” Stern said. “They didn’t stand up and applaud, but they were really upset and worried.”
The event was a panel discussion with four speakers, one of whom was Huwaida Arraf, a local Palestinian human rights activist who, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council, should not have been speaking due to her anti-Israel attitude and rhetoric.
“A 20-second Google search would have revealed that this woman should have been disqualified in the first place,” said Sam Dubin, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC. “She’s very, very vehemently anti-Israel, so there’s really no countermeasure … There’s really no other side to what this woman is committing.”
“Waking up and seeing these organizations completely misinterpret my message and call me anti-Semitic doesn’t surprise me, but it’s really unfortunate,” Arraf said. “It’s not about Jews versus Palestinians, it’s about freedom versus occupation. The Palestinians have been so slandered that our freedom struggle is also being slandered.”
Araff interviewed 7 Action News via Zoom while wearing a mask due to recent jaw surgery. She insisted she did not say Israel was an apartheid state, focusing more on her personal experience working in Gaza.
“I didn’t spread any hatred. I spoke about my personal experiences. I spoke about the fact that the Palestinians are not free and are living under occupation and are fighting for their freedom,” Araff said. “Looking at the statement by these organizations, you might think I was actually talking about Israeli apartheid or settler-colonialism… I wasn’t actually talking about those things. I wanted it and I think there should be space to talk about those things.”
In a statement, the district said:
“At Bloomfield Hills Schools, a safe, supportive and inclusive student experience is central to our educational mission. Bloomfield Hills High School has been working with the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate for the past two years and as part of that work, the high school planned a diversity gathering with the goal of creating equity, awareness and space for all students .
During this gathering, one of the external guest speakers went beyond our agreed parameters and discussed her personal political perspective. This hurt many of our students. We apologize and deeply regret that our students, staff and community have been negatively impacted.
As a school community, we work collaboratively with our ADL partners and religious leaders. Our administrators, counselors and social workers are available to speak to students and staff. We actively listen to the concerns of our students, families and community. Equity and inclusion will continue to be a top priority for Bloomfield Hills Schools, as it has been for the past several years. The district will emerge stronger and better from these discussions, undeterred by its commitment to all students and promoting a school environment of safety and support for all of our students.”
“We are for more talks about Israel and Israeli politics and Israeli politics. That wasn’t that conversation,” Dubin said. “She used language that is harmful to the Jewish community.”
“There was only one student who came up to me afterwards and let me know that he did not agree with my comments and that he has family in the Israeli military,” Arraf said. “I listened to him, but I also told him that he got a lot of his facts wrong and he should think more about what’s happening… Do people need to know about it? Yes. Do people need to be made to feel a little uncomfortable? Yes, because the situation is unbearable for millions and silence is simply not enough.”
The JCRC/AJC says they are hoping for a more public apology from the district. Stern says her son and his friends are talking about potentially hosting a pro-Israel event in response.