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 her anti-Israel activism and inflammatory rhetoric took to the stage and diverted from the day’s topic to instead share her one-sided, politicized views about Israel.

She was able to address the entire student body of 1,700 students in the span of four mandatory assembly sessions. Some Jewish students abruptly left the assembly in tears.

The speaker, Huwaida Arraf, who, in 2022, ran unsuccessfully for Congress 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 the JN, Arraf also denied Israel’s existence, only referring to the land as Palestine.

A statement emailed 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 prompts without prior knowledge by any of the organizers and 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 the speaker’s message. We acknowledge that our work toward an equitable school community is always ongoing.”

But Jewish students, parents and community leaders criticized the statement as weak, vague and inaccurate because it did not mention how Arraf singled out Israel and Jews and how she was allowed to continue her off-topic rhetoric to more groups of students who were mandated to attend the program.   

Parents interviewed by the JN harshly criticized the Bloomfield Hills Schools administration for passing the buck to students in the statement and not responding to parent and student concerns that they exposed 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 Schools administrators throughout the following day.

Parents React

In a letter addressed to the school board shared with the JN, parent Jennifer Arkin Camens, who has a freshman and a senior at the high school, asked why an event that was supposed to address bias and promote diversity included a guest speaker that instead encouraged it. She wrote in the letter that in the vetting process for speakers, 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 a public school during an assembly on diversity allow (someone who encourages bias)?” Camens wrote. “To have your speaker say that Hamas is not a terrorist group and it’s the Jews who are killing people in Gaza is outrageous. How does this eliminate hatred? Instead, it directs hatred to the entire Jewish Community.”

In her letter, Camens also rebuked the faculty in the auditorium who continued to allow Arraf to speak.

“Where is the accountability? A letter from Principal Stroughter saying the speaker went off prompt is not enough to undo the damage to your students and the entire Jewish community …” she continued. “The goal of the assembly was to help students understand how discrimination affects people. Instead of reaching said goal, you have effectively discriminated (against) the Jewish Students in 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.

The JN had sent multiple requests to school officials for an interview or answers to specific questions about diversity day. They didn’t respond by press time.

Stacy Arsht Fox of West Bloomfield, who has a freshman and a senior at the 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 the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict on a day designed to teach students about personal accounts of discrimination they may have experienced growing up in the United States.

“A diversity day was not the place or the time for this woman to bring up the conversation on whether anti-Zionism is antisemitism. She doesn’t get to teach this to my child. Everything she said was taken out of context; there was no one there to give an opposing viewpoint, and now impressionable teens think Israel is a police state.”

Student Reactions

A Jewish 10th-grader who holds a student leadership position and wished to remain anonymous for fear of academic reproach or harassment from her peers, said she was shocked at 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 would share their personal experiences of discrimination from their youth. (Arraf) started at the beginning talking about her childhood experiences but she veered off topic very quickly into talking about how Israelis discriminated against Palestinians. She just kept mentioning Israeli soldiers; it was very odd.

“Then she started mentioning things about the Jews, that she worked for an organization that tried to bring Palestinian and Israeli kids together to become friends and play sports, but she had to resign because she could not handle the fact that Israeli kids would go home to their homes but Palestinian kids went home with guns pointed at them by Israeli soldiers who were probably the big brothers and sisters of the Israeli kids the Palestinian kids just befriended.”

A video recording sent to the JN confirmed this portion 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 she resigned and took 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 talk was misleading, especially for students who have little to no knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said what was troubling was that the students would accept Arraf’s presentation as factual because it was offered in an academic setting.

“The students who don’t have a clue (about Israel and the Palestinians) who heard her speak were there for a school-approved assembly talking about diversity. So, obviously, they would never think that her information was flawed or showed bias. The whole thing was just dumbfounding to me.”

To counter this, the student said the school must hold another school-wide assembly and invite another speaker who can offer factual and balanced information about the topic. Shaken after the event, the student asked to see her counselor. She was told by a faculty member that counselors would not be available for appointments until that Friday.

“The thing that disturbed me was no one in the administration or any teachers saw what this woman was saying as problematic or wrong,” said the student, who has family in Israel and who now fears academic and social ostracization if she publicly expresses support of Israel to peers or teachers. “All the teachers were in the auditorium, and no one said anything. And even though (the principal’s email) said she was spoken to, she continued presenting to all the student groups and more Jewish students kept getting upset. Why didn’t anyone see anything wrong with this?”

Organizations React

In a statement released to the JN, the Detroit Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Committee (JCRC/AJC) expressed shock that a person with politicized, anti-Israel rhetoric could be allowed to continue to speak to hundreds of students even after she was warned to stay on topic the first time.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Rabbi Asher Lopatin Brett S. Deutsch

“JCRC/AJC is deeply disturbed 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 which there were many in attendance — extremely uncomfortable, fearful 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 Arraf made to students in attendance included saying that Israel is the oppressor and Israel is an apartheid state.

The statement continued: “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 Jews or Israel, which Arraf targeted in her 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 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.”

Carolyn Normandin
Carolyn Normandin

Anti-Defamation League Michigan Regional Director Carolyn Normandin said what could have been a very positive day of learning about diversity from hearing a panel talk about their adolescent experiences as an ethnic, religious or sexual minority turned into a politicized one-sided attack against Jewish people. Normandin said Arraf’s appearance at the school was a failure upon the Bloomfield Hills administration to carefully vet guest speakers.

“There is a vast educational opportunity here to make especially non-Jewish students, faculty and parents understand why this was so upsetting to Jewish students,” Normandin said. She said her office began receiving many complaints about the assembly that morning.

“What was attempted by the school — educating students about the personal perspective of growing up as a minority and any discrimination that comes along with that — is a really great thing and it is a conversation that should be happening at many high schools,” Normandin said. “It was completely inappropriate of the high school to invite Arraf to an event that was intended to promote unity and understanding. Instead, she immediately became political and espoused her one-sided, personal political beliefs about the complex topic of the Middle East. None of the other speakers veered off the topic like Arraf did.”

To rectify the problem, Normandin said there needs to be another school-wide assembly program to “level-set” the misinformation and bias Arraf shared with the students and to explain why it’s unfair not to present the other side of a very complex topic.

“Going forward, the 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 more fully so something like this will never happen again.”

Temple Israel Statement

Read More:

Diversity Day Divisiveness Continues

Taking Ownership

Previous articleHatzalah MI’s Road to the Future
Next articleDelivering Comfort
Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com