Holding Antisemites Accountable.

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Jewish Students at Michigan High School Bombarded With Antisemitism

Jewish students and parents of the Upper School of Roeper said that there have been rising tensions in the months following the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, culminating with the appearance of posters with pro-Palestinian messages calling for a ceasefire and accusing Israel of committing genocide on the week of Feb. 12 just before the private school’s scheduled winter break.

Some students requesting anonymity are saying that the climate has become inhospitable to Jewish students, with a few feeling socially ostracized for expressing pro-Israel views and others concerned that this ostracization may hurt their academic standings and their scheduled trajectory toward graduation during the final years of high school. One student said they were verbally bullied in the hallway after the appearance of the posters.

Days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the Jewish Student Union (JSU) released a statement to the student body informing them how Israelis were attacked and killed from air, land and sea. To gain approval from the administration, the JSU had to amend the statement to include the death of Palestinians as well. 

As the months went on, members of the JSU were divided about the idea of bringing Metro Detroit’s Shinshinim Israeli delegates into the school to offer an Israeli perspective of the events before and after Oct. 7. However, some JSU students did not want to have Israelis in the building, and the JSU was told by the administration that if the Shinshinim were to speak to the organization as invited guests, they were not allowed to talk about Oct. 7 or the ensuing war. After some debate, the JSU decided they were no longer going to discuss Oct. 7 or its ramifications because it was too polarizing, and one Jewish student decided they wanted to create chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine at school, according to the student.

Still, this student felt the decision to quell the discussion of Oct. 7 in a Jewish group was unfair because objections to this discussion mainly came from one student who then went onto form SJP.

 “Because the founder of (SJP) is Jewish, I believe that the administration believes that nothing that is happening now is antisemitic or hateful toward Jews,” said the student. “But this is simply not true.”

Two weeks following this discussion, the pro-Palestinian posters went up urging students from all backgrounds to join newly forming organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace. After pro-Palestinian posters went up, some Jewish students said they were verbally harassed by others in the hallway within earshot of faculty members who they say did not respond or react.

The JN obtained a message sent on Feb. 12 on TikTok by the president of the Black Student Union, who describes himself as a supporter of “the justice for Palestinian people.”

In the message, the student urged all other student groups to form a coalition to create actionable steps to help people affected by the conflict and call for the United States government to end monetary and military aid to Israel.

The JN obtained several photos that show flyers and posters that were hung in the hallways of the Upper School during the week of Feb. 12.

One poster depicted the Palestinian flag with the words “Anti-Zionism does not equal Antisemitism” and encouraged students to join organizations like National Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. This poster said it is “not antisemitic to call for a ceasefire or to condemn the actions of the Israeli military.”

Another poster asked students to think about “Why do you value white comfort over brown lives,” “Why do Palestinians wear keys around their necks” and “What is the difference between the Irgun and the IDF.”

Another poster indicated the number of those who were injured and killed in Gaza, and the number of hospitals destroyed in Gaza without any sources or attribution.

A typed flyer without attribution to any individual, group, student or faculty member said that the Roper community needs to “start talking about Gaza and the humanitarian crisis.” The flyer indicated there is an increasing number of children killed in Gaza and that the United States funds Israel and supplies the Israeli Defense Forces with arms.

The flyer said: “Teachers are ignoring the starvation, displacement and confinement of Palestinians and that 20,000 Palestinians would have been alive if the U.S. government voted for a ceasefire in the United Nations on Oct. 27.”

The flyer asked history teachers to teach about Gaza and inform all registered voters about what is happening.

When Jewish parents emailed Head of School Christopher Federico explaining why the posters could be construed as antisemitic, Federico responded in an email saying that the posters were the “work of a very small group of students who acted without speaking to anyone in advance.”

Federico wrote: “As you know, the poster campaign was led by a Jewish student, which speaks to the complexity of both the facts and the feelings involved, and the danger of telling a single story about how anyone should perceive the conflict.”

He continued: “Although I understand why the posters caused upset in their criticism of the actions of the Israeli government and the IDF, I did not see any that advocated hate or violence, suggested that we should support Hamas or stand unequivocally with Palestine, or called for the destruction of the State of Israel. As much as one may disagree with the messages on the poster, I do not think it is accurate to say that they are the work of someone who is acting out of ignorance.”   

There have also been concerns from parents about social media posts made on X throughout February by the dean of the middle school, Patrick Harris, who is also the Black Student Union advisor.

Posts Harris has made on X reveal that he believes U.S. defensive and military aid and support for Israel is “disgusting.” Harris mocked a video of Jewish women college students at an undisclosed campus crying to administrators about a pro-Palestine protest in the days following Oct. 7. He reposted tweets describing Gaza as an open-air prison where people are bombed and starved and criticized a Superbowl Ad about antisemitism, describing it as Israeli propaganda meant to “draw the public’s attention away from the genocide in Raffa” on the evening when IDF forces extracted two male hostages from the area.

A Jewish parent, who wished not to be identified for fear of academic and social ramifications, said they are not confident about sending their children back to school for some time. They are not confident that the school administration can repair the situation that has been brewing within the halls of the middle and upper school campus.

Regarding the posters, the parent said the administration took them down soon after they went up. In communications to the school community, the administration then unveiled new policies on what types of posters are permissible, and any posters should include the names of student organizers and could only be posted in approved designated areas in the building.

“It was at that point that the student body went berserk,” said the parent. “The president of the Black Student Union stood up and claimed that the administration was infringing on the student’s First Amendment rights and that they would not be silenced. They just kept replacing posters that the administration removed. My child said students were streaming into the hallway taking on a mob mentality of the many versus the few. When they left school (before mid-winter recess), they left that day very upset, and they are not sure they want to return to school.”

A parent who gave the pseudonym Lauren to hide her identity said, “I don’t think the administration understands why we see what is on those posters to be hurtful and biased,” Lauren said. “Which is why Jewish parents were asking for more education (about antisemitism and anti-Israel bias) from the beginning. If you are part of a community, you are all not going to agree on everything. But you can have conversations about why something, like words on a poster, can be hurtful to you. If we were having engaging, facilitated conversations all along, something like a poster would be discussed civilly and taken down or would have never been put up.”

Lauren said she did not blame the children who want to be strong advocates for social justice. “But you can’t expect them to understand the complex history of the Middle East or the politics at play without teaching them,” she said. “They need to know that they are targets of a very well-constructed social media campaign. They need to learn how to [distinguish] between misinformation and propaganda from facts. I know Roeper students can have the hard conversations, they just need to be given the guidance and the chance.”

If anything positive came from the Oct. 7 attacks, it has brought Jewish families at Roeper closer together as they sought each other out online and in person to prepare for any potential antisemitism that may come their way. Parents with children in the lower grades, including Allison Gutman, say they feel their children are supported and have been comforted.

Gutman works for the Jewish Federation of Detroit as senior Israel and overseas programming associate. She said she worked to correct messaging coming out of school communications that acknowledged the attack. Gutman made sure communications from Roeper said that Israel is not fighting Palestine but Hamas, and that Hamas is a terrorist organization.

Gutman said that the experience for elementary school kids and the war is very different to that of middle and high school students who have far more exposure to social media.

“My son knows about the attacks and is sad about the hostages, and he knows his mom makes visits to Israel every few months,” Gutman said. “He also knows he can express this to his teachers and the school social workers who have been fantastic and compassionate.”

Gutman said the posters were put up without the school administration’s permission, and that the administration was told by Jewish families that any formation of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine or Jewish Voice for Peace would be “unacceptable.” The jury is still out on whether Shinshinim delegates will visit the school, she added.

“Following the posters, a group of Jewish parents, including myself, have made it very clear to the (school headmaster) that the messaging about the war needs to be the way we want it to be or at least neutral,” Gutman said. “But from the elementary school side, the school faculty, administration and social workers have been beyond supportive. They know our family has close personal ties to Israel and Israelis.”

On Feb. 27, the JN received this statement from Roeper:

“At the Roeper School, we are deeply committed to fostering an inclusive and respectful learning environment where all students feel seen, valued and supported. 

“Early in February, a number of students from a range of backgrounds created posters that showed different student perspectives on the Israel-Hamas war.

“Some were directly critical of the government of Israel, some called for a ceasefire and some encouraged students to contact their elected representatives,” read the statement. 

“Some of these posters negatively impacted members of our community. None of these posters were approved by any school employee, and all were immediately removed by school leadership. While we do not seek to silence students, we also understand how challenging it is to utilize posters as a means for fostering respectful and constructive dialogue.”

Regarding the conduct of Harris, the statement said that  leadership has recently “engaged with faculty and students to develop new guidelines that would ensure that students could be both heard and safe within the school. There is no room at our school for antisemitism, Islamophobia or any form of hate speech.

“Certain social media posts by a school employee were only brought to the school’s attention at the end of last week during the school’s winter break. The school takes concerns about these posts very seriously. As we are taking steps to address this, we cannot provide additional details on this confidential personnel matter.”