Michigan school closes its doors to Palestinian voices

Israeli soldiers scuffle with Palestinian and foreign peace activists during a demonstration against the Wall in the village of Bilin, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, 12 January 2007. (Moti Milrod/MaanImages)

In mid February of 2007 two Palestinian, nonviolent human-rights activists, Mohammad Khatib and Feryal Abu Haikal, were in the Detroit area as part of a national tour. The Roeper School, located in the Detroit suburbs of Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham, with a body of 630 gifted students from preschool to 12th grade, was contacted to host the speakers. The school seemed to be an ideal place for Khatib and Abu Haikal to give their presentations as its philosophy has an “optimistic and humanistic view of life,” with a commitment to justice, non-violence, and “accepting one’s obligation to make the world a better place for everyone.” Roeper agreed to host the speakers.

As a member of a local cosponsoring group, the Michigan International Solidarity Movement, and a graduate of the Roeper School, I was elated that these two grassroots human rights activists would present at a place I still considered home.

George and Annemarie Roeper, founders of the Roeper School, purposefully created a school with such a philosophy — in great part due to their personal experiences. The School website says of the Roepers, and the history of the school: “George and Annemarie were refugees from Germany, witnesses to the moral cataclysm of Hitler’s Third Reich. Once in this country, the couple dedicated themselves to creating an environment in which a powerful few would never again be able to impose their will upon an unchallenging majority.”

To this day the students still seem committed to the founding principles of the school. They have an Amnesty International group, and have attended anti-war protests (I heard about this on a local NPR station). The director of the upper school Randall C. Dunn states in clearly political terms, “The current condition of our nation and our world demands that we educate children to care for others, to think critically, and reach for humanistic ideals in all of their interactions.”

Mohammad Khatib presently practices the principles Mr. Dunn and the Roeper School aspire to

Mohammad Khatib presently practices the principles Mr. Dunn and the Roeper School aspire to. He is a farmer, a father and a member of the Popular Committee against the Wall in the West Bank village of Bi’lin. In a nonviolent struggle to save over sixty percent of the village’s land from confiscation by the Israeli Occupying Forces for settlement housing, and the “separation wall,” 34-year-old Khatib works closely with village members, as well as international and Israeli activists. He has been injured, arrested, threatened, and harassed. Khatib, his committee, and the village of Bil’in have been featured in, and have written articles for, not only the Arab media, but Israeli and U.S. news agencies as well. He is featured in the 2006 award-winning documentary by filmmaker Shai Carmeli Pollack about the village’s struggle. (The Jerusalem Film Festival, and Amnesty International’s The Movies that Matter Foundation in the Netherlands honored the film.)

Feryal Abu Haikal is a 60-year-old mother of 11 and a retired teacher and headmistress of the Cordoba school in the Old City of Hebron. Abu Haikal, her family, and students have been targeted and brutally attacked numerous times by some of the most vicious and fanatical of Israeli settlers. They are also harassed by the Israeli military that aids in enabling the settlers to commit their crimes. Her attempts to stay with her family and live in their home, and for her students to receive an education have proven to be an incredible form of resistance to the occupation in the West Bank. Abu Haikal’s daily actions are in essence what Dr. Dunn wishes for the student body at Roeper; her hopes for, and commitment to her former students, are not very different from Mr. Dunn’s.

Abu Haikal and Khatib were scheduled to speak at The Roeper School on February 15th. Three days before then, on Monday February 12th, the school canceled the event. I was contacted via email and told that the school was rescinding their invitation and that the following statement from the school had been sent out to the Roeper Community:

The Roeper School intends to engage its students in a dialogue concerning Middle East issues involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the Birmingham campus had invited Palestinian speakers touring the U.S. to speak at an assembly on Thursday, February 15, the school believes that without providing its students substantial background information on the difficult issues involved in the region, the comments of speakers of any point of view could not be understood in context. As a result, the school will withdraw its Thursday invitation to the International Solidarity Movement speakers. Those interested in hearing the views of these speakers would be able to do so in talks given in Southeast Michigan Sunday through Thursday.

The Roeper School will offer two assemblies to its students in grades 8-12 within the next six weeks in order to present information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first will be a faculty presentation which will present the history, national groups, and conflicting interests in the region. The second assembly will invite speakers from the wider community to present specific viewpoints of Israelis and Palestinians. We believe that its students can best understand these difficult issues though this process.

Apparently, “conflicting interests” is terminology used by humanists to describe mass expulsions, razing of villages, a refugee and humanitarian crisis, illegal settlements, collective punishment, and an occupation of 40 years. A “point of view” for the school administrators, is when people talk of their homes being invaded and or demolished, land stolen, children shot at, harassment and humiliation at checkpoints, collective punishment, extra judicial executions, school closings, and their existence and suffering denied by an occupying military force. “National Groups” must be the convenient phrase for colonizers and abused indigenous populations.

Later that day I received an extremely (and sincerely) apologetic phone call from the school contact. During our conversation I asked the following. “Would the School have used the same written backpedaling to un-invite a Black South African activist during Apartheid in that country? Would they have had to contextualize the situation for students to understand such a speaker? Would they have considered his statements viewpoints? Would they have needed to discuss national interests if Rwandan Tutsis came to speak about the genocide in their country? Would they need background information before an Iraqi could come to the school and speak against war and occupation in Iraq?”

Who pressured the school to un-invite Khatib and Abu Haikal?

After the conversation I wondered why a discussion couldn’t occur after the speakers came to the school. Who pressured the school to un-invite Khatib and Abu Haikal? Why did a parent with a child at the school who supported the presentation tell me not to have his or his childs name used in reference to the event for fear of repercussions and ostrisization amongst her peers? If Mohammad and Feryal were anything other than Palestinian would the Roeper School have shut them out? How could a gentle farmer and an elderly teacher cause such fear and alarm in the mostly affluent and suburban school community?

In reality I didn’t ponder on those question for very long. I am no longer that naïve.

More than two months have passed since the cancellation notice was sent to me. In the email I was told, “I would hope you or another ISM member would accept an invitation to present your group’s views and actions.” Although all of the MISM members have gone to the West Bank, I am not, nor is anyone in the MISM, Palestinian; none of us have lost our homes or property due to our ethnic identities; the Israeli government does not oppress us; and we don’t live in fear for the safety of our families. We were merely witnesses for brief periods to the devastation and destruction caused by the brutality of the Israeli Occupation.

Khatib and Abu Haikal, however, do live those lives, and stand firm by their commitment to peace and nonviolence. And they have long since returned home. We from the MISM whose words truly pale in comparison to Khatib and Abu Haikal’s have yet to be contacted by the School for a presentation of our views and actions.

The school chose to close their doors and hide behind carefully worded rhetoric

The Roeper School community was given a rare opportunity to hear first-hand accounts from victims of oppression, the stories of their daily lives, and the compassion and creativity engendering nonviolent resistance. The school instead chose to close their doors and hide behind carefully worded rhetoric.

I am proud and humbled to have had the opportunity to stand alongside the Palestinian people. I stood as a witness to their struggle and in solidarity with their quest for freedom and justice. I thank the Roeper School for nurturing and reinforcing the values of global humanism in me, and thank the Palestinian people I met in Bil’in, Hebron, and throughout the West Bank, for their humanity, generosity, and hope for fruition of the values taught at the Roeper School.

I now ask the Roeper School to remind itself of the meaning of their philosophy and history. Over sixty years have passed since the Ropers fled Nazi Germany, and here in this nation not only are the powerful few running the country but also, sadly, it seems their beloved school. It is the responsibility of the Roeper School to foster its fundamental values and not cave in to those powerful few to join the ranks of the unchallenging majority. Otherwise, I fear the humanism of the Roeper School is history as well.

Elissa Mugianis went to the West Bank in the Spring of 2005 as a member of The Michigan Peace Team. She lives in the Detroit area.