In wake of assembly incident, Bloomfield Hills Schools officials pledge “to do better.”
Bloomfield Hills Schools officials owned their failure in providing proper vetting of an outspoken Palestinian American guest speaker Huwaida Arraf, who appeared at a March 14 diversity day program at Bloomfield Hills High School. Arraf went off topic and used the speaking opportunity to spread anti-Zionist rhetoric to the school’s 1,700 students.
This second statement apologizing about the incident from school officials was issued Thursday, March 16.
In the days following the diversity day program, Jewish students at BHHS reported an increasingly hostile environment as students asked each other whose side they were on. And a student-generated Instagram post invited other students to wear the colors of the Palestinian flag on March 17 to show support for the school’s Palestinian and Arab students, while Jewish parents debated whether or not to send their teens to school.
In a statement released to Bloomfield Hills Schools families, Superintendent Pat Watson stated in the first sentence that the district made a mistake and expressed a sincere apology “for the harm that was caused by allowing a conversation that was not appropriate in a school setting.”
“We own what went wrong and will improve our practices,” the statement read.
It did not mention Arraf by name, but said she deviated from the prompts and “discussed specific incidents, political in nature, which were outside of the parameters of the assembly and not their own lived experience.”
The statement continued: “In a school of ‘No Place for Hate,’ antisemitic rhetoric was shared with our students, and we recognize its devastating impact. For this, we are very sorry.” (No Place for Hate® is a student-led Anti-Defamation League national program introduced at BHHS last September.)
“We also recognize that in the aftermath, many others were hurt as well. We apologize for failing to guide our student organizers properly. We regret that we allowed the speaker to continue their presentation.”
The statement acknowledged that Arraf 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. As the adults responsible for the safety, success, and well-being of our entire student body, we have failed in demonstrating how to highlight diversity in a positive way and how to address sensitive topics appropriately.”
Watson stated the district, working with representatives from the Jewish community, has identified “significant areas for improvement and we acknowledge we need to do better.”
“We deeply regret that our process failed our students and created division in our school. None of our students should carry the burden of this — it falls squarely on the district.”
Watson stated that going forward, school-wide mandatory assemblies and other student-led programming will be “supervised by adults with intention and purpose and will more thoroughly vet invited guests who will speak to the school community.”
Jewish leaders and school administrators met for hours on Wednesday, March 15, in emergency meetings to figure out how to build paths of reconciliation on a high school campus that overnight had become deeply divided.
Meanwhile, students reacted. Some arrived at school that day draped in a Palestinian flag. Circulating rumors of swastikas at BHHS were investigated by Bloomfield Township Police and found not true. And on Thursday afternoon, there were reports of people waving Palestinian flags in the parking lot, chanting “We Love Kanye West.”
Rabbi Robert Gamer, head clergy at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park as well as president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis, said he and clergy from Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Temple Israel and Temple Beth El as well as representatives from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, JCRC/AJC and the ADL, spent the bulk of Wednesday meeting with school officials.
“The school administration now fully recognizes that the failure rested squarely with them, that they dropped the ball on this, and they are owning up to it,” Gamer said. “When Arraf started speaking about Israel as an apartheid state — and we all know apartheid has no place in this world — by default, what she was saying was that Israel has no place in this world. The administrators now have a complete understanding that Arraf should have never been allowed to speak and had no place as an invited guest to the school.”
Gamer said part of the problem was that administrators and school faculty do not understand the nuances between criticizing Israel and slipping into anti-Zionism as an expression of antisemitism.
“There were 25 of us all in a room that included administrators and school board members,” Gamer said. “Across the board, they all said they had learned things they had no knowledge of before. They will continue to learn with us, the ADL and the JCRC to continue to understand the difference between valid criticism of Israel and when that language slips into denying the existence of the state of Israel — and how and why that is very hurtful and offensive to Jewish people. For this, I am hopeful.”
Students Express Dismay
One Jewish student, who wants to remain anonymous, said she attended the second assembly and was quickly alarmed when Arraf began her presentation that swiftly turned to claims that Israelis were murdering Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip.
Deeply offended, she turned to her friend, who is Egyptian American, to express her alarm. But her friend did not understand why she was so upset because he was unfamiliar with the history of the conflict.
“She started speaking about the conflicts in Gaza and was saying that Israelis are murderers. And as soon as I heard that, I was shocked and deeply offended. I just tuned out the rest of what she had to say, left the presentation and texted my parents,” she said.
The student, who last December traveled to Israel on a mission with Temple Israel, said Arraf’s statements were completely inappropriate to share with the entire school. She said she sent a lengthy letter to BHHS Principal Lawrence Stroughter, describing her “life-changing” experiences in Israel and questioning why the school would invite such a hateful person into a school with a large Jewish population.
“I wrote to him that it was very hurtful that we live in a very Jewish community and, knowing that, why would the school bring in a woman to give a presentation that basically was antisemitic hate speech? I also reminded him that, on a daily basis, he tells us that our school is no place for hate and that if you see something you must say something. If this is so, why was this woman allowed to blast hate speech to the entire school?”
On the day after the assemblies, the student stopped in a girl’s restroom between classes. In a locked handicapped stall, she noticed that several girls had gathered and were having a conversation about what had happened at the diversity assemblies. She heard them whispering things about Jews.
When another friend entered the bathroom, the student whispered to her to listen, and the friend confirmed what the student had heard.
“We both heard them swearing that ‘these Jews are blowing everything out of proportion.’ During lunch,” she said, “we went to the office to report the incident about girls swearing about Jews and saying derogatory things about Jews. We reported it word for word to the office attendant who took our statement, and there were several other students there to report additional incidents at the same time.
“Then the attendant told me, ‘Please don’t share this around the school. Please don’t tell a bunch of people. We don’t want it to be blown out of proportion.’ There are other kids who were also confronted with hateful incidents. It was just a very hectic day at school.”
When the JN informed school officials about this incident, Bloomfield Hills Director of Communications Karen Huyghe said the matter is under investigation by the district’s Administrator of Public Safety Patrick Sidge.
Sophomore Noah Freedland attended the first assembly of the day. At first, Freedland said he appreciated Arraf describing her childhood, growing up with an Arabic name and changing it to Heidi in grammar school to make her feel less different.
“I thought she was going to stay on that path, but then she kind of transitioned into talking about Palestine,” he said. “Then she started talking about how she worked with Palestinian children hanging out with Israeli children, and I thought that was really powerful and like a cool thing. But then she did a 180 and said the Palestinian children had to go through hours of checkpoints with guns pointed at them by the brothers and sisters of the other Israeli kids. That’s when I realized what she was saying was not true. Yes, there are checkpoints, but they are there for security reasons. Then, she started talking about how Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, which scared me a little because I didn’t want people thinking that Israelis and Jews are bad people who are oppressors, when they have been oppressed all throughout history.”
ADL Reports on Arraf
Ironically, the day’s program was an outgrowth of an initiative that BHHS began last September with the ADL. According to Regional ADL Director Carolyn Normandin, ADL Michigan trained faculty and some student leaders in its No Place for Hate program.
According to the organizations’ website, No Place for Hate is being used by more than 80 Michigan schools as a student-driven initiative that empowers schools and communities to promote respect for individual and group differences, while challenging prejudice and bigotry.
Normandin stressed emphatically, however, that ADL had no knowledge that Arraf had been invited to speak at the high school and the organization would have never recommended her as a panelist.
In fact, in numerous reports, the ADL has categorized Arraf as a divisive disruptor to coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians through her activism on American college campuses.
In its 2012 report, for example, the ADL said Arraf, who founded the Free Gaza Movement, described Israel as a “colonial apartheid regime” and alleged that its laws are designed to discriminate against Palestinians. She also spoke out against Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, calling it “collective punishment” and urging individuals to support a second flotilla to Gaza being planned for May 2011.
On her Twitter feed, Arraf continuously expresses support for a BDS campaign against Israel — most recently praising the mayor of Barcelona, Spain, for breaking all institutional and academic ties with Tel Aviv. Her feed also indicates she supports a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which would eliminate the Jewish state — on the grounds that a two-state solution doesn’t recognize Palestinian right of return.
“Students come up with projects for the (No Place for Hate) program and, last year at BHHS, this program went off without a hitch,” Normandin said. “This program was supposed to focus on the guests’ experiences of discrimination in high school. This person completely co-opted the entire program, stood on her soapbox and made the day about her politics. She intentionally sowed division among students in a very major way.”
Parent Robyn Michelle, whose son is a student at the school, had a conversation with Principal Lawrence Stroughter where he listened to her concerns and, as an educational administration professional herself, she offered to assist in the healing process.
“Administrators need to protect students when they are in our hands and, on this day BHHS, did the exact opposite. It is completely the fault of the Bloomfield Hills Administration for allowing such a speaker to come to campus without vetting them, and then for not stopping the speaker no matter how ‘subtle’ her antisemitic and anti-Israel remarks were.”
“Though Stroughter said moving forward that faculty will work with Jewish and Muslim student leadership groups, students are not yet at a point where they can come together to talk. I suggested possibly having individual club meetings and bringing in respected clerics from each religion, i.e have a Rabbi and Iman come in that each group knows and respects to help facilitate the situation.”
“My son feels like school has become an ethnic/culture war zone. But Stroughter did agree that things are a bit out of sorts, and they are working hard to support students and faculty also plan to teach staff to recognize all forms of antisemitism.”
Bloomfield Hills Schools Letter (March 15):
Dear Bloomfield Hills Schools students, staff and community,
We made a mistake. The purpose of this letter is to explain what happened and express our sincere apology for the harm that was caused by allowing a conversation that was not appropriate in a school setting. We own what went wrong and will improve our practices.
On March 14, 2023, a diversity assembly was held for all BHHS students. In preparation for this assembly, administration met with each of the five speakers to discuss the intent of the assembly and prompts. The prompt was to address an oppression or discrimination they have faced and what could the people around you have done to make this better? A guest speaker deviated from the prompts and discussed specific incidents, political in nature, which were outside of the parameters of the assembly and not their own lived experience.
In a school of “No Place for Hate,” antisemitic rhetoric was shared with our students and we recognize its devastating impact. For this we are very sorry.
We also recognize that in the aftermath many others were hurt as well. We apologize for failing to guide our student organizers properly. We regret that we allowed the speaker to continue their presentation.
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. As the adults responsible for the safety, success, and well-being of our entire student body, we have failed in demonstrating how to highlight diversity in a positive way and how to address sensitive topics appropriately.
We have identified significant areas for improvement and we acknowledge we need to do better. We deeply regret that our process failed our students and created division in our school. None of our students should carry the burden of this – it falls squarely on the district.
Below outlines a few corrective measures:
- Going forward, school-wide mandatory assemblies and other student-led programming will be supervised by adults with intention and purpose, designed to generate a well-crafted, tightly designed message. As part of this, we are committed to a complete redesign of our vetting process for guests within the school community. We are working on this urgently.
- We are committed to plan and implement staff training to identify antisemitism and Islamophobia at its core and how to help students navigate these issues. These and other forms of hate must be addressed in order for us to foster a healthy educational environment. We have been and will continue to meet with community leaders and professionals to design these staff modules in the coming weeks.
- We are committed to building back a resilient culture that will lead to dignified and productive student civil discourse. To this end we are open to suggestions and ideas which will help us support our students and their academic and personal development. We will implement student programming during this semester to achieve these goals. We will never allow hate to be accepted in our school.
Our students are watching us. It is our responsibility to take accountability for this, apologize, and take steps toward healing and doing better.
JCRC/AJC Follow Up Statement on Bloomfield Hills High School Incident
JCRC/AJC welcomes Bloomfield Hills Schools Superintendent Pat Watson’s most recent letter regarding the antisemitic incident at Bloomfield Hills High School. Watson recognized serious mistakes were made, took ownership of what went wrong and committed to a number of corrective actions which we feel will be effective in making sure incidents like this will not occur again. We are particularly encouraged by the district’s commitment to plan and implement staff training to actively identify and address antisemitism. We’re hopeful this will help build a healthy educational environment free from hate.
This has been a difficult week for students, their families and many of our community members. We recognize that there is still hurt and anger in the community as a result of this incident. The harm caused cannot be assuaged solely through words and we look forward to meaningful change.
The JCRC/AJC—along with the Jewish Federation, community rabbis, and the ADL—remains in constant communication with school and district administration and collectively we are taking steps to make sure the school follows through on their commitments.
As we head into Shabbat, a time of reflection spent with the people we love, we look forward to a future with greater understanding, tolerance and respect for our community, as well as for all people.