Few things are more complex than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that dispute came to northern Fulton County after an apparent misunderstanding over a map that appeared at a middle school multicultural night last week.
A display at Autrey Mill Middle School on Thursday represented the culture of Palestinians, many of whom are Muslim, and included a map that seems to show the outline of Palestine before Israel was recognized as a nation inside its borders. A picture of the map circulated on social media without context, causing many to take it as a slight to Israel, which was founded as a Jewish state.
The school district then condemned the display and said it would be investigating. Local Muslim advocates released a statement Tuesday voicing opposition to the school’s statements, and saying school officials opened up some students to bullying by mishandling the incident. The district declined to respond to questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the incident Tuesday and gave no indication on the status of the investigation.
Discussion over the map is taking place in an increasingly charged environment just weeks after the newly elected U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, was chastised for comments some found anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Omar has said she supports the the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement that promotes boycotts against Israel for, in part, persecution of Palestinians. In a tweet, she indicated that American politicians who support Israel do so under the influence of money from the American Israel Pacific Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. She later apologized.
Autrey Mill principal J.E. Trey Martin said in a letter to parents the day after multicultural night that the point of the event is to “build understanding and knowledge of diverse countries, cultures, people, and food.” The event was held at the school, in the area of Johns Creek and Alpharetta, and families had to sign up in advance to get a spot.
Martin wrote of the map: “I am extremely disappointed and disgusted with the individuals who presented an insensitive political and geographic representation. This display does not represent our school culture, which is one that values inclusion and unity.”
On Tuesday, the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the school district to apologize for its criticism of the display, stop its investigation and promise to protect students who have been bullied as a result.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of CAIR in Georgia, said later in the day that he has an email thread showing the school approved the display, and he heard from the two families who set up display that the principal visited the table during the event.
“By rushing to publicly condemn these students before gathering those facts, Fulton County Schools validated an online smear campaign, turned a simple misunderstanding into a public spectacle, and put a target on the back of school’s Palestinian-American students, who are now experiencing harassment,” Mitchell said Tuesday.
Mitchell said the map was a historic representation of the region before Israel became a country in 1948, when the students’ grandparents lived there, and it wasn’t meant as a political statement.
Experts say it’s no surprise a map caused all this trouble, considering the history of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has for decades included who has the right to what lands.
“Maps have caused wars,” said John Dunn, head of the history department at Valdosta State University.
Dunn said it begins with the British government promising land to the Palestinians if they helped the British defeat the Ottomans during World War I. The British then said in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that they would “support the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
“Both sides feel they have a powerful claim (to land) that was at one time called Palestine,” Dunn said.
Because of many factors, including escaping the deadly rise of Nazism in Germany, some Jews came to the region. From there, you get multiple wars between Israelis and Palestinians, Dunn said.
Mitchell, head of CAIR, said students of the two families have been called terrorists and had other students tell them they were no longer friends. The school district has reached out to meet with the families and Mitchell, who said he also wanted to meet with the local Jewish community.
“We’re not going to agree on Israel (and) Palestine … but we can disagree without being disagreeable,” Mitchell said.
District spokeswoman Susan Romanick declined to respond to questions from the AJC on Tuesday about the investigation and the fallout from the incident. She instead gave a statement that partially reads: “FCS district leaders and local administrators are working with individuals, parents, students and groups at Autrey Mill Middle School on a personal and individual basis, in an effort to create a better understanding of different cultures.”
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