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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ann Arbor school board OKs a resolution supporting a cease-fire in Gaza

Last week, the Ann Arbor City Council endorsed its own cease-fire resolution.

By Dana Goldstein

In the United States, some labor unions, city governments and town councils have weighed in on the Israel-Hamas war, issuing statements in support of a cease-fire — often over vociferous objections from some of their own members and constituents.

On Wednesday night, the school board in Ann Arbor, Michigan, became one of the first public school districts in the country to vote in favor of such a statement.

Supporters of the resolution, including Palestinian American and Jewish board members, said that the statement was an urgent moral necessity amid a humanitarian crisis.

But the vote — 4-1, with two members abstaining — was divisive in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan and sizable Arab and Jewish populations.

At a meeting punctuated by cheers and jeering, some parents said that they did not see any role for the local school board in the conflict, despite their own wishes for the hostilities in Israel and Gaza to end. And they worried that singling out Israel for condemnation, in a world filled with wars and suffering, could fuel antisemitism in the district.

One father said he planned to remove his children from the district’s schools.

And several parents asked the board to refocus on other matters, such as the district’s search for a new superintendent and academic recovery following the pandemic.

“Direct your attention back to the needs of our children,” one parent said.

The Israel-Hamas war has created huge rifts within education, both at universities and in local school districts, especially in left-leaning enclaves like Ann Arbor.

In Oakland, California, some Jewish parents are withdrawing their children from public schools after teachers held an unauthorized, pro-Palestinian teach-in last month.

And after a public outcry, an elementary school in the New York City borough of Brooklyn removed a classroom map that depicted the Middle East without Israel, labeling the country “Palestine.”

Last week, the Ann Arbor City Council endorsed its own cease-fire resolution. But in December, the University of Michigan prevented the student government from voting on several cease-fire statements.

“The proposed resolutions have done more to stoke fear, anger and animosity on our campus than they would ever accomplish as recommendations to the university,” the university’s president, Santa J. Ono, wrote in a letter to the community.

Rima Mohammad, who had supported the statement as Ann Arbor’s school board president, acknowledged that the cease-fire resolution was “symbolic.”

But the Israel-Hamas war “is definitely something we have to address, especially because I do believe the ongoing conflict abroad is leading to an increase in racism and discrimination locally,” she said in an interview before the vote. “The Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Israelis are all hurting.”

Mohammad is Palestinian American who immigrated to the United States at age 5.

On Wednesday night, the school board, as scheduled, elected a new president, Torchio Feaster, who abstained from the vote on the resolution.

In addition to calling for a “bilateral cease-fire in Gaza and Israel,” the resolution condemned Islamophobia and antisemitism.

It also encouraged teachers in the 17,000-student district to facilitate classroom discussions about the conflict.

That became one of the most divisive elements of the proposal. Many established curriculum resources on Israeli-Palestinian issues are created by advocacy groups and are themselves highly disputed.

Marci Sukenic, a parent of three students in the district, and a staff member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, said she was “adamantly opposed” to the resolution, in part because “our teachers are not equipped for those conversations.”

“There is a lot of bias out there,” she said. “There is misinformation.”

In the past, she said, her children had been called on in class to “represent the Jewish view” of issues, a role that she did not think was fair. “Our kids could be singled out,” she said.

Jeff Gaynor, the Jewish school board member who supported the resolution, is a retired middle-school social studies teacher who once wrote his own curriculum on Israeli-Palestinian issues. He said he trusted educators to not venture beyond their expertise.

Ernesto Querijero, the board trustee who sponsored the resolution, said he did not think teachers should have to avoid the issue, especially when students were exposed to so much discussion of the conflict on social media.

“We have to make space for students to be able to talk about this,” said Querijero, an English professor at a community college. “Can you create a space to allow students to voice their own opinions?”

The resolution was introduced by an Ann Arbor high school junior, Malek Farha, 16, who said he wrote the statement with his uncle. As a Palestinian American, he said, he supported educating students about the conflict so his peers could understand that “it has been going on for decades that Palestinians are oppressed.”

He said most students were getting their information on the conflict from social media and the news. But he disputed the idea, brought up by many adults, that the war had divided his Jewish and Muslim peers, adding, “It never caused conflict between us.”

If that is so, the same could not be said for the adults. The Wednesday board meeting had to be paused several times to try to tamp down on heckling and personal attacks from the crowd.

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