BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. (WXYZ) — Controversy among parents in Bloomfield Hills after a high school diversity event sparked criticism among the Jewish community. The Jewish Community Relations Council called out the district over a speaker they say spread anti-Israel messages, making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, fearful and attacked.
“We know everyone has different political views but to bring those views into a public school, to have those things forced upon them, it’s not the place,” said Robyn Stern, a parent of a 10th grader at Bloomfield Hills High School.
She says she learned about the speaker Tuesday morning when she got a text from her son, who was upset about what a speaker was saying during a diversity event.
“Him and his friends were not sure what to do," Stern said. "They didn't stand and applaud, but they were really upset and concerned.”
The event was a panel that featured four speakers, one of which was Huwaida Arraf, a local Palestinian human rights activist who the Jewish Community Relations Council says should not have been allowed to speak given her anti-Israel stance and rhetoric.
“A 20 second Google search would have shown a result that this woman should have been disqualified from the beginning,” said Sam Dubin, assistant director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/ AJC. “She's very, very vehemently anti-Israel, so there’s really no counter... There's really no other side to what this woman is perpetrating."
“To wake up and see these organizations completely misconstruing my message and calling me anti-Semetic, I'm not surprised, but it’s really unfortunate,” Arraf said. “It's not about Jews versus Palestinians, it's about freedom versus occupation. Palestinians have been so vilified that our struggle for freedom is also vilified.”
Araff interviewed with 7 Action News over Zoom while wearing a mask due to recent jaw surgery. She insisted she did not say Israel is an apartheid state and focused more on her personal experience working in Gaza.
"I did not spew any kind of hatred. I talked about my personal experience. I spoke about the fact that Palestinians are not free and live under occupation and are struggling for their freedom,” Araff said. “Looking at the statement from these organizations you would think I actually spoke about Israeli apartheid or settler colonialism... I didn't actually talk about these things. I wanted to, and I think that there should be space to talk about these things.”
In a statement, the district said:
"At Bloomfield Hills Schools, a safe, supportive, and inclusive student experience is at the center of 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 this work, the high school planned a diversity assembly with the goal of creating equity, awareness, and space for all students.
During this assembly, one of the external guest speakers went outside of our agreed upon parameters and discussed their personal political perspective. This caused harm to many of our students. We apologize and are deeply regretful that our students, staff, and community were negatively impacted.
As a school community, we are collaborating with our ADL partners and religious leaders. Our administrators, counselors, and social workers are available to talk to students and staff. We are actively listening 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 for the past several years. The district will emerge stronger and better as a result of these conversations, undeterred from its commitment to all students and to foster a school environment of safety and support for all our students."
“We are for more conversation on Israel and Israeli politics and Israeli policy. This was not that conversation," Dubin said. “She did use language that is harmful against the Jewish community.”
“There was only one student who came up to me after and let me know he did not agree with my comments and that he has family in the Israeli military," Arraf said. "I was listening to him, but I also let him know he has a lot of his facts wrong and he should look more into 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 unlivable for millions and silence just doesn't do it.”
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 possibly having a pro-Israel event in response.