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At the school board table

By Ruth Kraut, special to the WJN

For many Jews, time is now split into “before” and “after” October 7. In the “before times,” the Jewish Federation/Jewish Community Relations Committee convened a parents’ group to discuss antisemitism in Washtenaw County schools. (See the October 2023 WJN for a summary.) They had also requested, from the Ann Arbor Public Schools, recognition as a Jewish advisory group. There are currently four other advisory groups: Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee for Special Education (AAPAC); District Wide Black Parents Student Support Group (BPSSG); Asian, Pacific Islander, South Asian/American (APISA/A); and Arab-American Advisory Group (AAAG).

Then came October 7. In the aftermath, there was pressure on AAPS to release a statement, as other institutions were doing. Washtenaw County has thousands of Jewish students in the K–12 schools, thousands of Muslim students, and thousands of Arab students. Many students also have family members in the Middle East, including many with direct connections to Israel and Palestine.

On October 11, Jeanice Swift, the outgoing superintendent of the Ann Arbor schools, shared a statement that read, in part, “We are devastated by the terrorist attacks in Israel, and we are heartbroken to hear of the loss of life occurring over recent days in both Israel and Gaza. … In the Ann Arbor Public Schools community, we believe strongly that there is no place for hate — whether antisemitism, Islamophobia, or xenophobia.” She also shared some resources on how to talk to children about the situation.

On the same day, AAPS school board trustees Rima Mohammed (Palestinian) and Jeff Gaynor (Jewish) read a statement at the school board meeting. In part, it said, “We stand together, as a Jew (though not Israeli) and a Palestinian, in the interest of our common humanity. Like many of you, we are heartbroken by the ongoing violence, suffering, and loss of life among the Israeli and Palestinian people … We know that this is a particularly difficult time for teachers, students, staff, administrators, and families who are personally affected by the attacks and response. We encourage tapping your school counseling teams and local school leadership if you or a student are struggling …”

As the war continued, the Ann Arbor school board received two organized letters (no doubt they have received many more individual letters):

One was spearheaded by Tahani Othman, as chairperson of the Arab American Advisory Group of the AAPS, a teacher at Ann Arbor Open, and also as a member of Zeitouna, a longstanding local dialogue group of Jewish and Palestinian women. It was turned in for the November 8, 2023, school board meeting with nearly 500 signatories; organizers recruited support from the general community and the letter included Jewish signatories.

It says, in part,

“We speak as concerned parents, students, and members of the Ann Arbor Public School community regarding the current situation in Israel/Palestine. We share the Superintendent’s concern and empathy for those affected, both Palestinians and Israelis.

We are concerned about the growing trauma and isolation being experienced by AAPS Arab and Palestinian (both Christian and Muslim) students and staff due to the rise of anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian sentiments in our community. Recognizing the history and experiences of Palestinians in our AAPS community is an integral part of acknowledging their full humanity and of educating all our students in critical thinking …

We stand with the Superintendent in denouncing acts of violence against Israeli and Palestinian civilians and we also applaud the Superintendent’s position on condemning antisemitism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, within our community.

Criticizing Israeli government policies is not antisemitism. Israel does not speak for all Jewish people, and Palestinians have many Jewish allies and advocates.

We call upon the district to fulfill its explicit commitment to its Equity Plan, which mandates creating a learning environment that enables all students to see themselves reflected in their coursework. Currently, our curricula and classrooms systematically avoid and silence Palestinian experiences. To accomplish a DEI plan that is rooted in justice, we have to expand our definition of diversity and inclusion to encompass all, including Palestinians.”

More recently, the Jewish Community Relations Council submitted a letter that starts out similarly. It was signed by approximately 550 signatories and read aloud at the December 6, 2023, school board meeting. The organizers gathered signatures primarily from within the Jewish community.

“We write to you as the parents of your students and your community members. Ann Arbor Public School Students, Jewish, Arab, and Muslim alike, are experiencing discrimination and harassment in Ann Arbor Public Schools. This is not a new occurrence and you have been aware of this discrimination for years, without taking appropriate action.”

It then refers to increasing numbers of harassment and attacks both nationally and locally, and says:

“We, as parents, taxpayers, and voters, ask you to take prompt and remedial action to stop this rise in illegal discrimination and harassment against all Jewish, Arab, and Muslim students at AAPS. No students from these groups should be afraid to go to school. They are. No Arab, Muslim, or Jewish students should be subjected to antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any type of hatred at school or school activities. They are …

It continues, by asking the school board to take the following steps:

-That all messages from AAPS are balanced and neutral on the Middle East conflict. There is no reason for AAPS to add fire to this already burning flame.

-Take action, prompt action, to stop the hatred, discrimination, and harassment to Jewish, Muslim, and Arab students alike who attend AAPS. This is your legal responsibility.

-Provide professional development to all AAPS faculty and staff to give them the tools to address antisemitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of hate in the schools.

-Promptly grant recognition to parent groups, including the Jewish Parents Advisory Council, that have asked to be recognized by the Board. This is necessary to ensure equal access and inclusion. We ask that any discussions at the school board level impacting these populations be held only when all involved have representation and a voice at the table. The Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor is a convenor and voice for our community, and we hope that you will work with them, so that we can all work together.

-We also ask that you use your voice for good. By electing you, we have trusted you to be our voice and represent us, all of us. The power should not be abused to make a preferred narrative but to bring everyone together in harmony and peace.

We cannot fix the world, but working together, we can create a safe and harmonious learning environment for our children.

Eileen Freed, executive director of the local Jewish Federation, explained that the letter was in response to parent concerns, and that many parents are concerned about reports of antisemitism. She did not have exact numbers of incidents, saying that often the families (or their children!) don’t want the incidents reported.

Some people had concerns that Rima Mohammad, the AAPS Board President, who is Palestinian, was mixing personal and public roles, particularly on her Facebook page. Until recently, Rima Mohammad had both school board information and information about Palestinian concerns on a single Facebook page. More recently, she has created a separate Facebook page for her school board work.

At the same December 6 meeting, Tahani Othman, who spearheaded the first letter excerpted above, gave an overview presentation of work the AAAG has done over the last 10-plus years, including working to address stereotyping and institutional racism, supporting families by providing Arabic translators for kindergarten roundup, and increasing education around Islam. She identified inclusion of the Palestinian narrative into the social studies curriculum as the next goal.

In the meeting, Othman then criticizes the letter from Federation, saying that although there is hate speech against Palestinian and Muslim students, the group does not support the claim that there is “rampant Islamophobia.” She says that the elephant in the room, the issue that they are currently addressing is that “Palestinian students never get to have their narrative highlighted and their generational trauma acknowledged.” She says that the challenges to the inclusion of Palestinian perspectives do not come from the district, but rather from people and organizations who are threatened by the Palestinian narrative being presented in the schools. She feels that the letter implies that Federation included the Arab and Muslim communities in their discussions, and she says that is false.

[School board meetings are recorded and found on the CTN City of Ann Arbor website.

Othman’s comments begin around minute 49 of the December 6, 2023 meeting, https://ctnvideo.a2gov.org/CablecastPublicSite/show/9081?site=3]

In discussing the goals of having a Jewish advisory group, Freed identified the mission as, “to be a voice for parents of Jewish children, to represent the interests of Jewish children, not just antisemitism, but also scheduling, Holocaust education, curricular issues, a place and resource for the schools and the school board.” This is the type of thing, in fact, that all of the advisory groups have been doing for the school board. Freed says, “If they’re going to be talking about issues that impact us and our community, we should have a voice at the table.”

There are clearly areas of overlap between the two groups: an interest in combating hate speech, supporting their communities, and providing education to teachers and the school board.

There are also likely areas of disagreement. Othman speaks of including the Palestinian narrative in the curriculum, and the AAAG letter refers to the school’s Equity Plan. The Federation letter refers to a “fair and balanced” narrative. It is likely that what seems “fair and balanced” to one seems “unfair and unbalanced” to another.

At this moment, the school board table has become a focal point for those who are connected to the Middle East. And it’s worth mentioning, for readers who don’t follow local school board politics, that the Ann Arbor schools have a new interim superintendent and are about to embark on a search for a permanent superintendent.

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