Think Twice

There are issues that the Jewish Federation as well as our Community Relations Committee (CRC) deal with that are often best managed “behind closed doors.” We may get calls from political leaders asking for our thoughts on community issues or have dialogue with other ethnic and religious groups on areas of disagreement. We realize that “en masse” is not always the best way to handle situations.

We recently learned that Lincoln High School’s (LHS) Arabic Studies Program is bringing the Israeli-Arab “hip hop” group DAM (“blood” in Hebrew) to meet with the students in the school’s Arabic Studies and World History departments – their visit is happening today. The issue is not that the group’s members are Israeli-Arabs; instead, the challenge is that this group condones terrorism and depicts Israel as a racist, fascist society. Click here for an example of their song lyrics.

After consulting with a group of concerned parents, the CRC arranged a meeting with Lincoln’s principal on October 27 to share concerns about LHS’ role in sponsoring this visit. CRC representatives, several parents, Professor Michael Weingrad from Portland State University and Rabbi Michael Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel met with the principal to urge her to reconsider Lincoln’s involvement -- not because DAM presents a pro-Palestinian perspective, but because the group’s music is inflammatory and condones violence. We would oppose an extremist Jewish group for the same reason. 

Prior to today’s activities, LHS sponsored a forum for parents and students to discuss DAM’s visit. The principal agreed to include CRC director, Bob Horenstein, and the community’s Israeli Shaliach, Amos Meron, on the panel to discuss concerns about DAM. The forum took place this past Tuesday night and was attended by 40+ people, including several Jewish parents and students. Bob, Amos and Ben Sandler, Education Director at Congregation Beth Israel, presented the perspective that this group’s visit is inappropriate for a public high school. Other panelists, including two Palestinians and the Arabic studies teacher, claimed that DAM’s visit is an important perspective when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I believe there are more productive ways to learn about the conflict.

LHS was planning to co-sponsor a film about DAM and their performance later tonight in southeast Portland, yet after conversations the principal decided against being a co-sponsor. However, we just learned that the Arabic studies teacher is offering "extra credit" to those students who attend the concert, basically dismissing our concerns and now trying to ensure that as many students as possible are exposed to this group's message.

Beyond these difficult discussions with the school, I must tell you how proud I am that several Jewish students took action. The following is an excerpt from an email from a senior at Lincoln High School encouraging her friends to attend the forum on Tuesday night:

As some of you may have heard, a Palestinian hip hop group by the name of DAM is coming to Lincoln this Friday and will be presenting to selected classes during third period. The group displays very extremist views, depicting Zionists as racists…and spreading a message of violence and hate. A group of concerned parents and adults in the Jewish community have already tried to talk with the principal about her decision to allow this group to perform to the Lincoln students, as well as the fact that only one perspective (DAM's perspective) will be represented and no others. I think it would be very powerful to have us as students and young members of the Jewish community show a big, respectful (non-rowdy) presence at the panel discussion Tuesday night. Please consider attending this meeting if you support the idea that guest speakers who promote a message of violence toward any group should not be allowed to present in our public high school, especially without another perspective to provide balance.

Another student, a junior at Wilson High School, sent the following to the Portland schools superintendent (and others have sent emails as well):

Since preschool, I have wanted to be a teacher, so I pay especially close attention to what differs between good teachers and great teachers. Often good teachers or schools will realize a topic is too controversial and choose not to address it. I respect that, but I also respect the teachers with the guts to tackle really hard topics. To address such topics, one must either give a very historical and factual point of view, or share strong viewpoints from both sides...I firmly believe controversial subjects and free speech belong in high school, but such violent words like, "Who's a terrorist? You're a terrorist!" or "With all the times you raped the Arab spirit...It got pregnant and birthed a boy called the suicide bomber" do not belong in Portland Public Schools…I believe you should make a district-wide rule about bringing in violent music groups or speakers to prevent such things from happening in the future.

In some ways, this is a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” in regard to speaking out. I am sure there are some who think the Jewish community’s opposition to this group is because “we” do not want the Israeli-Arab and Palestinian point of view expressed. This could not be further from the truth. We were very upfront with the principal that our message is that it is wrong to bring into a public school any extremist group, whether Arab or Jewish (or neither), that promotes hate and violence.

In the end, today DAM will meet with Lincoln High School students and tonight will be a performance. Fortunately, the principal has agreed to have Bob and Amos speak to the classes and provide another perspective in the near future. A small victory.

Hate speech does not equate with free speech. Let's hope the school (and others) will think twice before opening their doors to others.

Shabbat shalom.



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