HOW NOT TO INTRODUCE YOUNG PEOPLE TO THE ISRAEL-PALESTINE CONFLICT
Last Thursday I received a confusing email from the president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis (MBOR) with “a short update to all of you on efforts that have taken place regarding the incident at Bloomfield Hills High Schools.” My colleague continued with a list of Jewish community leaders who had attended a meeting that day to address what he called “the gravity of the situation that occurred and why it was so hurtful to Jewish students.”
Having no idea what he was talking about, I immediately turned to Facebook where I learned that the incident in question was a series of presentations by local Palestinian activist Huwaida Arraf. As part of a diversity, equity, and inclusion program organized by students, Ms. Arraf was one of four speakers invited to “address an oppression or discrimination [you] have faced and what could the people around you have done to make this better?”
From social media and other sources, I was able to piece together reports that Ms. Arraf allegedly referred to Israel as an “oppressor,” called Israel an “apartheid state,” advocated for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel (BDS), accused Israel of genocide, and defended “violent resistance” (during the two intifadas). I regard these as allegations because during interviews with local reporters, she denied using much of this language. And there don’t seem to be any extensive recordings.
In any case, Jewish community leadership was swift to act. Our local JCRC/AJC – led by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a recent guest at an Israel forum we held for CHJ – released this statement:
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.
Temple Israel issued a statement that read:
We were shocked and disappointed to hear about the assemblies that occurred at Bloomfield Hills High School on Tuesday featuring a speaker that presented anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric.
Similar sentiments bubbled up all over social media as others, including rabbis, weighed in. Like Temple Israel, many called her presentations antisemitic.
I admit that this characterization did not really ring true to me. I’ve met Ms. Arraf on several occasions. We have hosted her as a panel member and I even moderated an online discussion with her and others on the question of whether anti-Zionism is, by its very nature, antisemitic. As part of my own preparation for that event I spent quite some time reviewing her statements, never once finding the remotest hint of Jew-hatred.
If she is – as one prominent rabbi posted online – guilty of “blatant Jew-hatred” I’ve never seen or heard it.
Not everyone was on-board with these condemnations. Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow of Detroit both backed Ms. Arraf’s assertions that she was, indeed, following the prompt. The Muslim Unity Center, considered to be a reliable partner for interfaith dialogue, denied that she engaged in antisemitism:
After consulting Ms. Arraf, and hearing her side of the story, it would appear that she truthfully presented both her views and experiences working on behalf of Palestinians, and that her remarks were pertinent to the topic of “[addressing] an oppression or discrimination” and valuable “to help students understand how discrimination affects people of differing religions, races …” as was the stated goal of the assembly.
They further expressed concerns about “bullying, intimidation, [and] threats of violence” targeting Muslim and Arab students:
Specifically, the students have expressed that they feel silenced, ignored, and dismissed by the administration because they hold views on a topic that may run counter to the narrative as it is portrayed by pro-Israeli and/or anti-Palestinian constituencies. We deem attempts to silence or ignore students, from any side of a debate, to run counter to the values of free and open inquiry, critical thinking, and a sound education.
As it happens, Ms. Arraf is not a Muslim. She is a Palestinian Christian married to a Jewish man. She holds Israeli and American citizenship and is fluent in both Arabic and Hebrew. From the admittedly limited evidence I’ve managed to obtain, I can’t find any evidence of “blatant Jew-hatred” or any other expression of antisemitism (and, in fairness, the JCRC / AJC did not accuse her of that). Of course, there are many who see antisemitism in any intense criticism of Israel’s policies and behaviors. In that case I suppose they might as well attach those epithets to me. Or to millions of other Jews.
Ms. Arraf is, indeed, a very powerful advocate for her people. In each of our encounters I felt uncomfortable with the intensity of her descriptions. Some of that discomfort arose when I felt her descriptions of the conflict were untrue or unbalanced. Yet I also felt it when she told stories I knew to be true; real, verifiable violations of her and her people’s human rights.
After this quickly blew up, Bloomfield Hills school officials issued apologies. The above-cited JCRC/AJC statement expressed frustration with the first of these:
We are disappointed that [the principal of] 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.
A subsequent longer apology by BHHS superintendent Pat Watson apologized for what I’ve already indicated are – as far as I presently have learned – debatable accusations of antisemitism.
And then Superintendent Watson continued with this:
The presenter spoke about a very tumultuous and complex situation, the conflict in the Middle East involving Palestinians and Israelis. A situation of this complexity with various sides, perspectives, hundreds of years of suffering, war, and tragedy is not one well-suited to be presented at a diversity assembly and should have been eliminated as a potential topic for discussion.
The superintendent is right about that. As much as I support teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion, the Palestine-Israel conflict is just a terrible place to start. It is one of the most emotion-laden and triggering conflicts in the world today. To introduce it to young people in a program about diversity without laying the slightest groundwork for it — and to do so in a way that can only be viewed as one-sided and completely bereft of any context — is to guarantee exactly the reaction that occurred. If they’ve learned nothing more from this, I hope that BHHS officials have learned that.
But this begs a question that also needs addressing. Taking as a given that this was not suited to this setting, why were the Jewish young people there so very blindsided by her point of view?
Maybe it’s because they’ve never heard it before. Maybe it’s because too many in mainstream Jewish leadership have for too long favored indoctrination over providing information about the conflict. The road to being this shocked by the Palestinian side of the story is paved by our community’s complete erasure of that story. Even when that story is shared by our own people, Jewish community leaders do not want it told. Take, for example, mainstream Jewish opposition to creating space for organizations like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. By blacklisting these groups – and every individual or group that supports BDS – even intra-Jewish dialogue is made almost impossible. I have never been able to put together a workable forum in which proponents of BDS and representatives from mainstream Jewish leadership could sit together. Supporting BDS is considered prima facie evidence of antisemitism. End of dialogue.
I completely understand the reactions of those who felt injured by Ms. Arraf’s talks. Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong context. All of that is true. But where are our community’s attempts to provide the right time and right place that would help create the necessary context to hear the Palestinians’ pain? Do they think that dialogue about what is arguably one of the most explosive conflicts in the world can really be achieved without discomfort and painful emotional reactions? A real dialogue, between people who can articulate their own side’s points of view, cannot and will not be fun. But it is necessary.
I urge our leaders to look in the mirror and ask themselves: What have we done to encourage real dialogue with those (otherwise non-violent) parties with whom we vigorously disagree? When we won’t even talk to Jews who take the Palestinian side how are we going to talk to actual Palestinians?
There is no question in my mind that BHHS made an ignorant mistake.
But refusing to confront the other side is no ignorant mistake. It’s the calculated error of those who fail to understand that there’s little to gain from a one-sided conversation.