The Ann Arbor, Michigan, public school district is looking to hire a new superintendent. He built several new schools. And he’s revamping the way he teaches young children to read.
But over the past month, the Board of Education has debated for many hours whether to support a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Gaza.
The closely divided board of trustees is now scheduled to vote on that resolution Wednesday and could become one of the first public school systems in the country to adopt such a statement.
Supporters of the proposed resolution, including the board’s Palestinian-American chairman and a Jewish trustee, said the declaration was an urgent moral necessity amid a humanitarian crisis. Some opponents of the resolution said they opposed a ceasefire because Israel has the right to defeat Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, after the October 7 attacks.
But more often, Ann Arbor parents said they saw no role for the local school board in the conflict, despite their own desire to see an end to hostilities in Israel and Gaza. And they feared that condemnation of Israel, in a world filled with war and suffering, could fuel anti-Semitism in the region.
The war between Israel and Gaza has created huge divisions within education, both at universities and in local school districts, particularly in left-wing enclaves like Ann Arbor.
In Oakland, California, some Jewish parents withdraw their children from public schools after teachers held an unauthorized pro-Palestinian class last month.
And after a public outcrya public school in Brooklyn, New York, removed a classroom card depicting the Middle East without Israel, calling the country “Palestine.”
In Ann Arbor, home to large Arab and Jewish populations, the debate is heated. Last week, the city council approved its own ceasefire resolution.
But the University of Michigan, located in Ann Arbor, took a different approach in December, when it blocked the student government from voting on several ceasefire declarations.
“The proposed resolutions have done more to stoke fear, anger, and animosity on our campus than they ever could as recommendations to the university,” wrote university President Santa J Ono, in a press release. letter to the community.
Of Ann Arbor’s seven school board members, three said they supported the ceasefire resolution, two were skeptical of the resolution at a previous meeting and two said they needed more time to hear from voters.
Rima Mohammad, the board chair, acknowledged that the ceasefire resolution was “symbolic.”
Nonetheless, the war between Israel and Gaza “is definitely an issue that we need to address, particularly because I believe that the ongoing conflict abroad is leading to an increase in racism and discrimination at the local level,” he said. she declared. “Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians and Israelis are all suffering. »
In addition to calling for a “bilateral ceasefire,” the resolution condemns Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
It also encourages teachers in the district to “facilitate informed and respectful dialogue about the conflict, with the goal of fostering a deeper understanding between students and staff.”
This has become one of the most controversial elements of the proposal. Many established educational resources on Israeli-Palestinian issues are created by advocacy groups and are themselves highly contested.
Marci Sukenic, a Jewish mother of three students in the district and a staff member at the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, said she was “categorically opposed” to the resolution, in part because “our teachers are not equipped for these conversations. »
“There’s a lot of prejudice,” she said. “There is misinformation.”
In the past, she said, her children had been called upon in class to “represent the Jewish point of view” on issues, a role she did not consider fair. “Our children could be singled out,” she said.
Jeff Gaynor, a Jewish school board member who supports the resolution, is a retired social studies teacher who once wrote his own curriculum on Israeli-Palestinian issues. He said he trusts educators not to venture beyond their expertise.
And Ernesto Querijero, the board trustee who sponsored the resolution, said he doesn’t think teachers should be forced to avoid the issue, especially when students are exposed to so much discussion about the conflict on social networks.
“We need to leave space for students to talk about it,” said Mr. Querijero, a community college English professor. “Can you create space for students to express their own opinions? »
The public is divided, with parents and students speaking out at board meetings about experiences of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in the district’s schools.
As of Tuesday, a petition opposing the ceasefire declaration had about 1,800 signatures. It states that the resolution “exceeds the scope and authority of the board” and diverts time and attention from “recruiting superintendents, overseeing special education, and ensuring academic excellence “.
A competing petition, with about 900 signatures as of Tuesday, calls for the resignation of board trustee Susan Baskett. At a meeting last month, Ms. Baskett, who did not agree to an interview, suggested that Ms. Mohammad, the board chair, could not treat the ceasefire declaration objectively because She is Palestinian-American.
Ms. Mohammad is a school system parent and professor at the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy. She immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old.
“My decision as a board member is not based on personal opinions,” Ms. Mohammad said, noting that the ceasefire resolution was first presented by a high school student.
That student, Malek Farha, a 16-year-old, said he wrote the resolution with his uncle. As a Palestinian American, he said, he supported educating students about the conflict so his peers could understand that “Palestinians have been oppressed for decades.”
He said most students get their information about the conflict from social media and the media. But he disputed the notion, floated by many adults, that the war divided his Jewish and Muslim peers, adding: “It never caused conflict between us.”
If this is the case, the same cannot be said for adults.
Alain Delaquérière contributed to the research.