Diversity Day panelist goes off topic to promote anti-Israel views at Bloomfield Hills High School.
A Diversity Day program Tuesday at Bloomfield Hills High School (BHHS) backfired when an invited Palestinian-American speaker known for his anti-Israel activism and inflammatory rhetoric took the stage and diverted from the day’s topic to instead share his one-sided, politicized views on Israel.
She was able to address the entire student body of 1,700 students during four mandatory assembly sessions. Some Jewish students abruptly left the assembly in tears.
The speaker, Huwaida Arraf, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2022 to represent Michigan’s newly formed 10th Congressional District, referred to Zionists as occupiers running an apartheid state and accused Israel of genocide in the Gaza Strip. In a video recording of the presentation shared with JNArraf also denied the existence of Israel, referring only to the country as Palestine.
A statement sent to the Bloomfield Hills School District by BHHS Principal Lawrence Stroughter that afternoon explained to parents that the event was student-led and organized, and that administrators met with each speaker to discuss the intent of the assembly. Other panelists included members of the Asian, Black, Indigenous and transgender communities.
The statement continued: “During the assembly for the 10th graders, one of the speakers deviated from the calls without the prior knowledge of any of the organizers and discussed the conflict in Gaza from their own personal political perspective and experience. This discussion was outside the parameters of the assembly and was taken up by the high school management immediately after the speaker left the stage.
“We condemn any speech that targets individuals or groups based on religion. We regret the harm caused to our community as a result of the speaker’s message. We recognize that our work toward a just school community is always ongoing.”
But Jewish students, parents and community leaders criticized the statement as weak, vague and inaccurate because it failed to mention how Arraf singled out Israel and Jews, and how she was allowed to continue her off-topic rhetoric to multiple groups of students who were mandated to participate in the program.
Parents interviewed by JN harshly criticized the Bloomfield Hills Schools administration for passing the money on to the students in the statement and not responding to parents’ and students’ concerns that they were exposing the entire student body to biased anti-Israel rhetoric.
Jewish leaders, including members of the Michigan Board of Rabbis, the Michigan Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Relations Community Council/American Jewish Committee were in emergency meetings with Bloomfield Hills School administrators throughout the following day.
In a letter addressed to the school board shared with JN, parent Jennifer Arkin Camens, who has a freshman and a senior in high school, questioned why an event that was supposed to address bias and promote diversity included a guest speaker who instead encouraged it. She wrote in the letter that one look at Arraf’s social media feeds, which are filled with anti-Israel statements, should have been enough to disqualify her from speaking.
“How do you as an elementary school allow (someone who calls for bias) during an assembly about diversity?” Camens wrote. “To have your speaker say that Hamas is not a terrorist group and that it is the Jews who are killing people in Gaza is outrageous. How does this remove hatred? Instead, it directs hatred towards the entire Jewish community.”
In his letter, Camens also reprimanded the faculty in the auditorium who continued to allow Arraf to speak.
“Where’s the accountability? A letter from Principal Stroughter saying the speaker went too fast is not enough to undo the damage done to your students and the entire Jewish community…” she continued. “The purpose of the assembly was to help the students understand , how discrimination affects people. Instead of achieving said goal, you have effectively discriminated (against) the Jewish students at your school. What a shame.”
Camens said she has not heard back from Principal Stroughter or Superintendent Pat Watson, but she said there would be a follow-up meeting with the parent teacher organization to discuss the matter later in March.
That JN had sent several requests to school officials for an interview or answers to specific questions about Diversity Day. They did not respond by press time.
Stacy Arsht Fox of West Bloomfield, who has a freshman and a senior in high school, said it was completely inappropriate for Arraf to spew “propaganda” to impressionable teenagers who have no in-depth knowledge of the complexities of Arab history. -Israeli Conflict in a Day designed to teach students about personal accounts of discrimination they may have experienced while growing up in the United States.
“A diversity day was not the place or the time for this woman to raise the conversation about whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. She cannot teach this to my child. Everything she said was taken out of context; there was no one there to give a opposite view, and now impressionable teenagers think Israel is a police state.”
A Jewish 10th-grader, who holds a student leadership position and wished to remain anonymous for fear of academic reprimand or harassment from her peers, said she was shocked by what Arraf told the students and left the assembly in tears.
“We were told that we were about to hear from people of different backgrounds who wanted to share their personal experiences of discrimination from their youth. (Arraf) initially started talking about her childhood experiences, but she very quickly changed the topic to talk about how Israelis discriminated against Palestinians. She just kept mentioning Israeli soldiers; it was very strange.
“Then she started mentioning things about the Jews, that she worked for an organization that tried to bring Palestinian and Israeli children together to become friends and play sports, but she had to quit because she couldn’t handle that Israeli children would go home. to their homes, but Palestinian children went home with guns pointed at them by Israeli soldiers who were probably older brothers and sisters of the Israeli children whom the Palestinian children have just befriended.”
A video recording sent to JN confirmed this part of Arraf’s presentation. Arraf, a Christian Palestinian with an Israeli Arab father and a graduate of the University of Michigan, is fluent in Arabic and Hebrew and worked for the Seeds of Peace organization before resigning and taking a more hardline approach. Her Facebook feed includes posts supporting BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, and she has said she empathizes with the armed resistance movements of the first and second Intifadas.
The sophomore said Arraf’s speech was misleading, especially to students who have little or no knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said the concern was that students would accept Arraf’s presentation as factual because it was offered in an academic setting.
“The students who have no idea (about Israel and the Palestinians) who heard her speak were there for a school-sanctioned assembly talking about diversity. So of course they would never believe that her information was flawed or biased. It was all just stupid to me.”
To address this, the student said the school should hold another school-wide assembly and invite another speaker who can offer factual and balanced information on the topic. Shaken by the event, the student asked to see his counselor. She was told by a faculty member that counselors would not be available for appointments until that Friday.
“What disturbed me was that no one in the administration or any teachers saw what this woman said as problematic or wrong,” said the student, who has family in Israel and now fears academic and social ostracism if she publicly expresses support for Israel to peers or teachers. “All the teachers were in the auditorium and nobody said anything. And even though (the principal’s email) said she was spoken to, she continued to present to all the student groups, and several Jewish students continued to get upset. Why did no one see anything wrong with this?”
In a statement released to JNThe Detroit Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee (JCRC/AJC) expressed shock that someone with politicized, anti-Israel rhetoric could be allowed to continue speaking to hundreds of students even after she was warned to stay on topic the first time.
“The JCRC/AJC is deeply troubled that (Arraf) was invited to speak at Bloomfield Hills High School as part of the school’s diversity initiative. … She continued her anti-Israel rhetoric and made Jewish students—of whom there were many present— extremely uncomfortable, scared and attacked.”
The JCRC/AJC statement said it was unclear why Arraf was allowed to continue making presentations throughout the day in light of her divisive rhetoric. Some points that Arraf made to the students in attendance included saying that Israel is the oppressor and Israel is an apartheid state.
The statement continued: “The JCRC/AJC is frankly amazed that Bloomfield Hills High School would offer someone like Arraf a platform in the first place. We are disappointed that Bloomfield Hills High School issued a letter without mention of Jews or Israel, which Arraf targeted in his speeches.”
Like the ADL and the Detroit Board of Rabbis, the JCRC/AJC was in contact with school administrators throughout the next day to figure out how to turn this into a teachable moment.
“The JCRC/AJC is here for community members hurt by Ms. Arraf’s rhetoric and looks forward to a more thorough explanation and an apology from those involved in coordinating and sponsoring this gathering.”
Anti-Defamation League Michigan Regional Director Carolyn Normandin said what could have been a very positive day of learning about diversity by hearing a panel talk about their teenage experiences as an ethnic, religious or sexual minority turned into a politicized unilateral attack against Jews. . Normandin said Arraf’s appearance at the school was a failure of the Bloomfield Hills administration to carefully vet guest speakers.
“There is a huge educational opportunity here to get especially non-Jewish students, teachers and parents to understand why this was so upsetting to Jewish students,” Normandin said. She said her office began receiving many complaints about the gathering that morning.
“What the school was trying to do — to educate students about the personal perspective of growing up as a minority and any discrimination that comes with that — is a really great thing, and it’s a conversation that should be happening in a lot of high schools ,” Normandin said. “It was completely inappropriate for the high school to invite Arraf to an event that was supposed to promote unity and understanding. Instead, she immediately became political, advocating her one-sided, personal political beliefs on the complex subject of the Middle East. None of the other speakers went off topic like Arraf did.”
To remedy the problem, Normandin said there should be another school-wide assembly program to “level up” the misinformation and bias Arraf shared with students and to explain why it is unfair not to present the other side of a very complex topic.
“Going forward, ADL has made itself available to school administrators and teachers to educate them on how to navigate the ever-changing complexities of Israel and the Middle East so that something like this will never happen again.”
Temple Israel statement