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How a Palestinian activist's appearance at a US school triggered a smear campaign

Huwaida Arraf has been subject to a series of online attacks since she spoke about Palestinian rights at diversity and equity event
Huwaida Arraf has been the subject of a relentless media campaign following her appearance at a high school event in Detroit, Michigan (MEE illustration)

In mid-March, Palestinian-American activist Huwaida Arraf spoke at a day-long event on diversity and equity at the Bloomfield Hills High School (BHHS) in the US city of Detroit.

The 47-year-old spoke about her experiences as a pro-Palestine activist and the events that had shaped her life.

"I spoke about my personal experience growing up here in the US, why I decided to move to Palestine, and the work that I was involved in, which essentially is grounded in the fight against racism and discrimination - the theme of the assembly," Arraf told Middle East Eye.

Arraf said she found the discussions at the event on 14 March stimulating and engaging. She even received questions from the audience.

Early the next morning, however, her phone kept buzzing with messages about her comments at the assembly. 

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The Jewish Community Relations Council and American Jewish Committee (JCRC/AJC) released a statement decrying Arraf as "a known anti-Israel activist" who had over the course of the day increased "her anti-Israel rhetoric" and made "Jewish students - many of whom were in attendance - extremely uncomfortable".

The JCRC/AJC added they were in touch with Rabbis in the area as well as the state branch of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Around midday that same day - on 15 March - Temple Israel, a reform congregation in Detroit, issued its own statement in which it now included the accusation of antisemitism.

"We were shocked and disappointed to hear about the assemblies that occurred at Bloomfield Hills High School on Tuesday featuring a speaker that presented anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric," Temple Israel said. "This content had no place at a program intended to feature stories of diversity and inclusion," the statement read.

Later that day, several Jewish leaders, including members of the Michigan Anti-Defamation League, Michigan Board of Rabbis, and JCRC/AJC sat in long emergency meetings with the school's administrators to address the incident.

That evening, school principal Lawrence Stoughter issued an apology in which he accused Arraf of going beyond "our agreed upon parameters" when she "discussed their personal political perspective".

"This caused harm to many of our students. We apologize and are deeply regretful that our students, staff, and community were negatively impacted," BHHS said in a statement. 

Stoughter did not mention Arraf, Israel or Jews, but said the school denounces "any speech that targets individuals or groups based on religion" despite there being no reports that Arraf had invoked any religious bias in the first place.

Arraf, a long-time activist who has faced slander and defamation from the Zionist lobby for several years, expected her presentation might draw some complaints. 

But even she was surprised by the onslaught.

"I did not expect the level of distortion and hysteria manufactured to completely silence and erase the Palestinian experience," Arraf said.

Accusations of antisemitism

The morning after Principal Stoughter issued a statement, Arraf wrote to the school to express her dismay at the insinuation that her comments had "target[ed] individuals or groups based on religion".

She told MEE that she did not receive a reply to her email.

Instead, the school, now via its superintendent Pat Watson, released a second statement, in which it doubled down on the claim that Arraf had "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 also introduced a second allegation to the mix: antisemitism.

"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," Watson said, adding that the Israel-Palestine issue was a complex issue and "not one well-suited to be presented at a diversity assembly and should have been eliminated as a potential topic for discussion". 

'Any criticism about the oppressive policies and actions of the Israeli government is conflated by some as antisemitic'

- Barbara Barefield, JVP-Detroit

Arraf responded to Watson's remarks with a public statement of her own in which she described the allegations of antisemitism as "outrageous and unacceptable".

"Both Stroughter and Watson knew that my comments focused on Palestinians' lived experiences and my personal experience fighting the racist, discriminatory structures that keep the Palestinian people occupied and oppressed," Arraf said.

In her statement, Arraf added that while it was unsurprising the same special interest groups that have worked so tirelessly for decades to silence Palestinian voices were at the forefront of the attacks on her and on the school, she was especially disappointed at the ease at which the school's administration had "gone along with these vicious, defamatory attacks, intended to detract from my message".

"These attacks and bogus attempts to conflate talk of Palestinian rights with antisemitism serve to keep Palestinians unseen, and unheard, and in turn, embolden Israel to continue its abuse and subjugation of an entire people yearning to be free," Arraf said.

Several organisations, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP-Detroit), immediately rubbished the claims pitted against Arraf.

"Any criticism about the oppressive policies and actions of the Israeli government is conflated by some as antisemitic," Barbara Barefield, communications chair at Jewish Voice for Peace-Detroit, told MEE.

Double standards

Days later, the school held a special meeting with parents and students to discuss the incident.

At the three-hour-long meeting in which speakers were given three minutes to express their views about the incident, the students who planned the event said Arraf's remarks had been misconstrued, adding that in no way or form had Arraf presented antisemitic views.

The student organisers also clarified that none of the members of the school board, including the superintendent who accused Arraf of making antisemitic remarks, had either attended the planning meetings or attended the assembly itself when Arraf spoke.

"Thoughtful consideration should be used when making these emails and the school and the Board failed, which resulted into two biased and hastily put together emails that are based on misinformation," one of the organisers said at the meeting.

"We apologise to all communities for the hate that's taking place and for the flaws in our assembly, but we will not apologise for having a Palestinian speaker and giving Arab and Muslim students representation," the student added.

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Several Muslim students expressed the pointed double standards of allowing certain topics to be discussed and certain political statements to be made, except when it came to Palestine.

"Some people are saying that political ideologies and political images haven't been allowed in this school. This is blatantly false," one student said. 

"I remember [in 2016] kids wearing Maga [Make America Great Again] hats to school. I remember kids blatantly supporting Donald Trump and not a single teacher batted an eye," the student continued.

"Throughout my entire time at this school, I have seen people wear Israeli Defence Force shirts; it is just a normal thing to wear.

"[But] the second we see an Arab speaker come to this school and spoke about her true experiences ... we got shut down and we get pushed to the side," the student added.

Several Jewish parents blamed the administration for allowing Arraf a platform to speak and called for the administration to be replaced.

"I am not going to voice my opinion on what was said [by Arraf]. That is not the point. The subject matter was not appropriate for the forum nor the audience," one parent said.

Another described the atmosphere in the room as "divisive".

"I don't know how you put the genie back in the bottle. I don't know how you put the toothpaste back in the tube," added a man who refused to provide his name.

"There's incredible divisiveness in this room."

A biased, bigoted media storm

By then, a media storm had ensued.

Few of the publications that wrote about the incident seemed particularly interested in what Arraf had actually said during her presentation to the students.

Instead, several right-wing publications either republished the press releases from the JRCC/AJC or merely repeated the talking points of the Zionist groups.

Fox News published an article titled: "Michigan high school apologizes for anti-Israel activist at 'diversity assembly,' doesn't mention Jews, Israel".

Israel National News headlined their article: "Palestinian American activist goes on hateful rant at Michigan school diversity event".

The Jewish News wrote that "a diversity day program Tuesday at Bloomfield Hills High School (BHHS) backfired when an invited Palestinian-American speaker known for her anti-Israel activism and inflammatory rhetoric took to the stage and diverted from the day’s topic to instead share her one-sided, politicized views about Israel". 

'Racist smears and lies have been widely hurled at Huwaida in the media, and death threats have been sent to Arab and Muslim students'

- Palestine Legal

The publications also mischaracterised the nature of the special public meeting between the school board and the larger school community.

In its depiction of the special meeting between the school board and parents, The National Desk narrated how dozens of parents had complained that Arraf's depiction of Israel as an "oppressor" had left their children feeling unsafe.

They omitted, however, the testimony of the student organisers who defended Arraf as well as the testimony of Muslim and Arab students who narrated what they saw as double standards towards politics in school.

The publication also described the Arraf-founded International Solidarity Movement (ISM), as having once been the "subject of an FBI-led international terrorism investigation".

The National Desk did not clarify that the investigation into the ISM, a non-violent movement committed to ending the occupation through non-violent means, had also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Student organisers defended their invitation to Huwaida Arraf (Youtube]
Student organisers of the Diversity Assembly defended their invitation to Huwaida Arraf (Youtube)

More than two weeks after the incident, the fallout shows no sign of abating, with Zionist groups piling pressure on the school, adding new layers to the claims that Arraf was both virulently antisemitic as well as sympathetic to terrorism.

"Answers are needed. Why was Huwaida Arraf, a radical anti-Israel activist who calls suicide bombings 'noble' and was behind the Mavi Marmara flotilla, invited to Michigan's Bloomfield Hills High? The four presentations she gave left the many Jewish students upset with some in tears," wrote the Canary Mission, a group that defames and slanders activists who advocate for Palestinian rights.

A day later, the US-based Zionist group, Stop Antisemitism, which describes itself as a grassroots watchdog dedicated to exposing antisemitism, described Arraf as "antisemite of the week".

She was also labelled "a rabid antisemite" and "a terror cheerleader" and described as having "poisoned the minds of 9th through 12th graders at Bloomfield Hills High school with her antisemitic campaign of lies, pushing some students to tears!"

The Jewish News Syndicate claimed that parents in the school district were "still reeling after a diversity event that was deemed mandatory for students took an antisemitic turn". 

Arraf said that while right-wing groups and media have continued to spread lies about her address to the students, it is the school and Muslim and Arab students at the school who have had to face the brunt of the smear campaign directed at her.

On 24 March, Stoughter, the school's principal, was unexpectedly placed on leave.

"Racist smears and lies have been widely hurled at Huwaida in the media, and death threats have been sent to Arab and Muslim students," Palestine Legal, an organisation dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom, said.

In response to several questions from MEE, Karen Huyghe, from BHHS, wouldn't get into specifics but said there were incidents related to both the Jewish and Muslim student body at the school.

"Our Administrator of Public Safety has been working with building administration to investigate and support students, while also following our Student Code of Conduct."

"Our administrators, counselors, and social workers have spoken to students and staff throughout the past two weeks. We are actively listening to the concerns of our students, families, and community and are putting together a comprehensive plan toward healing as a community," Huyghe said.

Silencing Palestinian voices

Activists and legal scholars working in the field say the attack against Arraf was neither surprising nor novel, given the abuse pro-Palestine advocates in the US face on a daily basis.

Amal Thabateh, from Palestine Legal, told MEE that the racist anti-Palestinian smear campaign against Arraf reflected a "broader, insidious pattern of repression". 

Thabateh noted that in 2022 alone, Palestine Legal responded to 214 incidents of suppression of US-based Palestine advocacy, with 70 percent taking place at universities, colleges and schools.

"By attacking an outspoken advocate like Huwaida, right-wing Israel lobby groups are attempting to create a chilling atmosphere where students and faculty will be afraid of backlash for speaking out in favour of Palestinian rights," Thabateh said.

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Thabateh called on Bloomfield Hills superintendent Pat Watson to reject the baseless, racist attacks against Arraf, and students at BHHS.

"By placing Principal Lawrence Stroughter on leave, Pat Watson has sent a shameful message to his students and faculty: that it is okay for right-wing Israel interest groups to hurl lies in the media against an outspoken Palestinian rights advocate, and enable death threats against Palestinian, Arab and Muslim students."

Enabling a climate of anti-Palestinian racism at schools is not just shameful behaviour, it is unlawful." 

Likewise, several dozen individuals have written letters of support for Arraf and more than 150 organisations have also signed a petition calling the accusations levelled against her as bogus and politically motivated. 

"It is clear that these attacks are politically motivated attempts to discredit Huwaida’s message and silence all advocates of Palestinian rights. It is dangerous and we must not tolerate it. Smears and lies have been widely hurled at Huwaida, and death threats to Arab and Muslim students," the letter states.

Despite the abuse she was subject to, Arraf heaped praise on the efforts by the students to bring the oft-neglected topic of Palestine to their school. 

"The student organisers wanted to also bring in the issue of Palestinian rights, but the BHHS administration is showing that it does not consider Palestinians as deserving of the same rights and considerations as other groups of people," Arraf said.

But the students, Arraf added, have been united in defending the assembly and her participation.

"They want to continue to fight back against the lies," she said.

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