Parents upset over Princeton High School walkout

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Controversy over a walkout by Princeton High School (PHS) students to go to the pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel encampment at Princeton University May 9 boiled over at a recent Princeton school board meeting.

The meeting on May 21 became heated at times. Some parents criticized the school district for not tamping down on antisemitism, despite its promise to do so.

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The parents expressed dismay over the walkout and what they considered to be hate speech against Jews on posters promoting the walkout, while other parents supported the walkout and called it a peaceful event.

One parent said the hallways at PHS were covered with fliers and posters that “screamed” hatred against Israel. The posters were not about a government, but about a group of people – Jews – who are students at the high school, she said.

But supporters – many of them college professors – said the students who walked out were engaging in a tradition of calling out what they perceive to be injustice. That injustice, according to supporters, has allegedly been perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians.

The students were calling for the freedom of the Palestinian people to live throughout Palestine without checkpoints or being treated as second class citizens, Princeton University professor Curtis Deutsch said.

“A call for freedom is not a call for annihilation in any way, shape or form,” he said, dismissing claims of antisemitism and the killing of all Jews. “What the students are calling for is not annihilation.”

While there was an inference that the Princeton University encampment had undertones of antisemitism, one speaker said he visited it every day and did not see hatred expressed toward a religious community. In fact, some of its leaders were Jewish professors and students, he said.

Princeton University graduate student Muhammed Bahri said he was one of the leaders of the now-disbanded encampment. It was organized to show solidarity with a movement that calls for the freedom of a people – Palestinians – and not for hatred of anyone.

“We were approached and we helped to organize the walkout,” Bahri said. “Nowhere or at no point in time was there any element of hatred that was mentioned for anyone.”

The organizers believe in the community and the good faith of all people, and there was no effort to radicalize Princeton High School students, he said. The students merely interacted with the Princeton professors and students.

But parents – many of them Jewish – disagreed.

Julia Rotenberg said that while the concept of free speech is sacred to her and she supports peaceful walkouts, she was concerned about the students who took part in the May 9 walkout.

“What happened was not peaceful,” Rotenberg said. “It was hate speech. The students who attended the encampment, they were radicalized and indoctrinated.

“You basically let toddlers run with a knife, instead of educating them.

“We are asking you to counter the propaganda and the hate they are hearing,” Rotenberg told the school board. “They need to learn history based on facts, not one-sided indoctrination.”

Liz Winslow said Bahri was a talented speaker who made his case well – but what he also did was to confirm that the walkout was not a spontaneous or “organic” one by PHS students.

“What I have a very hard time getting behind is a bunch of adults – which all the students were at the encampment – coming down and encouraging other people’s minor children to leave school during the Advanced Placement exams to advance their own political agenda,” Winslow said.

“It is not acceptable and I really hope something can be done in the future.”

Dan Winn said he hoped that one of the things that the school board takes away from the meeting is that there were a few speakers with Princeton University connections.

The Princeton Public Schools is a public school district that accepts all students and is focused on teaching them the basics of education, Winn said. It is not an agenda-based education.

“One thing I learned and I hope you learned is that there are people from Princeton University with an agenda to bring the crises, the conflict and sometimes the hate and the anti-Jewish behavior from the university into the high school,” he said.

“You can develop ways to stop that and you must.”

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