First published in the Summer 2017 issue of the Massachusetts Peace Action newsletter
This past May, Newton North High School (NNHS) held a new event, Middle East History Day, during which invited speakers gave presentations throughout the day. We, the NNHS Peace Action Club, were thrilled that faculty and students began open conversations about the Middle East. However, we noticed some hypocrisy in the criteria that the NNHS set for the speakers.
In October of last year, NNHS Peace Action planned to invite Phyllis Bennis, an analyst and writer on the Middle East, to give a presentation about Syria. This proposal was denied because of concerns that Ms. Bennis would spark controversy because she has been critical of Israel’s actions and policies — although the event was to focus entirely on Syria — and the administration did not feel that there was sufficient time to prepare for the expected backlash.
Then, only a week before Middle East History Day, we learned that the members of the Jewish Student Union had invited Arielle Schwartz, the New England Progressive Outreach Director from AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the powerful, explicitly pro-Israel political lobbying group without previous notifications to the main organizers of the event. If controversy and time constraints made NNHS draw the line at hosting Phyllis Bennis, so should have AIPAC caused discomfort for the administration. But the AIPAC speaker was confirmed.
The NNHS Peace Action responded accordingly: during the AIPAC presentation, two Jewish students held a banner that read “AIPAC does not represent us / Not in our name! #JewishResistance,” and as the audience left the presentation, three other students distributed flyers that gave context on what AIPAC really stands for. The entire protest was civil and nondisruptive, and we hope the administration takes a lesson from our response.
Sure, the Middle East History Day did offer a range of speakers with differing perspectives, including MAPA’s Jeff Klein who discussed Syria; and sure, clubs and students of whatever political stripe may invite whomever they choose. But since that privilege was not extended to my club with Phyllis Bennis, the school should at least have been consistent with the precedent it had set. This incident also prompts these questions: what narratives are schools willing to sanction? When a pro-peace speaker is considered too controversial but rabidly pro-Israel AIPAC is accepted, whose free speech seems to matter more?