BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. – A school principal in Bloomfield Hills has issued an apology following a guest speaker’s message, which may have upset students at an assembly about diversity.
The question at issue is which viewpoints are appropriate to share with students at a school assembly, after a controversial set of speeches by Palestinian-American activist Huwaida Arraf.
Some people feel that Arraf went too far in labeling Israel an oppressor of Palestinians -- a view shared by the human rights group Amnesty International.
“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,” Bloomfield Hills Schools said in a statement.
A group of rabbis, including Jewish Community Relations Council Director Rabbi Asher Lopatin, met with Bloomfield Hills High School Principal Lawrence Stoughter.
The rabbis, parents and students demanded an apology after the school allowed Arraf to hold four assemblies to speak to students on Tuesday.
Stoughter sent a letter to families in which he did not name Arraf or detail what was said. The principal blamed “the speaker” for deviating from what they had agreed to talk about.
“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,” the principal said in the letter.
Arraf released a statement that reads, in part, “My message addressed the harms caused by racism and discrimination, and denying others the same rights that you seek for yourself; rights that all people deserve. To the extent that anyone was upset to hear about what is happening to Palestinians, they should be. But, it seems to me that their problem is with the policies of the state of Israel, not with me.”
Rabbis told Local 4 that they are willing to take part in the discussions about diversity.
Full statement from Huwaida Arraf
“I was honored to take part in BHHS’s Diversity Assembly -- a wonderful program that was organized primarily by students (mainly young women) of color. I was warmly welcomed by students, staff, and the administration alike, and thanked for sharing my experiences. My message addressed the harms caused by racism and discrimination, and denying others the same rights that you seek for yourself; rights that all people deserve. To the extent that anyone was upset to hear about what is happening to Palestinians, they should be. But, it seems to me that their problem is with the policies of the state of Israel, not with me.
“It’s unfortunate that certain interest groups are now harassing the BHHS administration and student organizers over my participation. These groups do a great disservice to our students’ education. These are the same forces that have been working to shut down Palestinian voices for decades, enabling Israel’s human rights abuses. They are the same forces that try to paint the issue as one of Jews vs. Palestinians. It’s not. It’s one of freedom, human rights and equality vs. occupation, colonization, and oppression, and tens of thousands of Jews stand together with Palestinians on the side of freedom, human rights, and equality. I’ve had the privilege to work with many of them, something that I also spoke about at the assembly.
“What is happening to Palestinians is a crime against humanity, and we -- Jews, Palestinians, and all people of conscience -- will not be silenced.
Letter to parents of Bloomfield Hills Schools students
“Dear Bloomfield Hills High School Students, Staff, and Community,
“Today, a BHHS student-led diversity assembly was held for all BHHS students. 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.
“We denounce any speech that targets individuals or groups based on religion. We are sorry for the harm that was caused to our community as a result of this speaker’s message. We acknowledge that our work towards an equitable school community is always ongoing, and we still have more work to do.
“In closing, the goal of our student organizers was to help students understand how discrimination affects people of differing religions, races, abilities, and sexualities and to build empathy within our community. We want to convey a few of the positive messages from our speakers today, including:
“It is our work to change the system, and the best way to change the system is through small acts and gestures. As students, this includes getting involved in clubs and student organizations that broaden your friend group.
“Be mindful of comments that you are making even within your own friend groups because you never know what someone is carrying inside. You will never know the impact your words will have on somebody.
“Being the best version of yourself. If a person has an opinion of you, prove them right or prove them wrong.
“Being confident in who you are and appreciating your own uniqueness.
“Sincerely, Lawrence Stroughter - Principal”
Statement from Bloomfield Hills Schools
“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.”
Letter from the Jewish Community Relations Council
“JCRC/AJC is deeply disturbed that known anti-Israel 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 – continuing her anti-Israel rhetoric and making Jewish students – of which there were many in attendance – extremely uncomfortable, fearful, and attacked.
“It is unclear why Arraf was allowed to continue making presentations throughout the day in light of her incendiary rhetoric. Some points Arraf made to students in attendance included: Israel is the oppressor, and Israel is an apartheid state. These statements should have immediately disqualified her from continuing to address students.
“JCRC/AJC is, frankly, stunned that Bloomfield Hills High School would offer someone like Arraf a platform in the first place. We are disappointed that Bloomfield Hills High School sent out a letter with no mention of the subjects so many of our community members are hurt by. Neither Jewish nor Israel appeared in the letter. We are in contact with school administrators and looking forward to a constructive dialogue to turn this into a teachable moment.
“We are also in contact with area rabbis and ADL Michigan – all of whom are deeply disturbed by this incident.
“JCRC/AJC is here for community members who are hurt by Ms. Arraf’s rhetoric and look forward to a more thorough explanation and an apology from those involved in coordinating and sponsoring this assembly.
“JCRC/AJC’s mission is to represent the metropolitan Detroit Jewish community, Israel and Jews throughout the world to the general community, and to establish collaborative relationships with other ethnic, racial, civic and religious groups. Visit jcrcajc.org.”