Admin suspends Palestine education fundraiser amidst controversy

Benjamin Chait, Editor-in-Chief

The Jackson-Reed administration suspended and then resumed a fundraiser towards education for Palestinians due to failure to comply with school policy following community pushback. 

The charity event, called Pennies for Palestine, raised funds for the Education for All initiative of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides education for Palestinian refugees. However, the Jewish Student Union (JSU) received complaints about political language and imagery used to promote the fundraiser.

The suspension came three weeks into the month-long fundraiser, which was conducted by the Arab Student Union (ASU).

Principal Sah Brown said that the fundraiser was paused for review after the school received concerns based on its content. “Once it was communicated what material was approved to display, the fundraising was approved to continue,” Brown said.

However, when administrators paused the fundraiser, their stated reason was that the fundraiser hadn’t undergone the proper procedure.

“Fundraisers need to be approved by the administration, and Pennies for Palestine did not follow protocol,” said assistant principal Marc Minsker. Minsker said that student fundraisers are approved by administration via an online form. “With any fundraiser, the money cannot remain in the hands of students, or in a classroom, or with a faculty moderator; it needs to be documented on a Student Activity Fund form with cash submitted to the school bank.”

Science teacher and ASU sponsor Phillip Bechara said “we had [been fundraising] almost the entire month.” Bechara added that “there was originally no fundraising form, so we were told after the fact that we had to fill out a form.” 

ASU president Karam Weigert replied that “no other fundraiser had to fill out that form… it’s a bit of a double standard.”

Minsker added that “there have been fundraisers at the school, such as the Student Government Association’s (SGA) canned food drive, who have not used the form only because they got explicit approval from the principal and/or Mr. Hall.” 

Social studies teacher and sponsor of the Jewish Student Union (JSU) Aaron Besser said that “things escalated quickly when parents got involved.”

Community members opposed messaging advertising the fundraiser, including on flyers distributed around the school and on the table where donations were collected in the atrium.

“There were two parents specifically really upset. They had a meeting with Minsker and Principal Brown and the next day the fundraiser was suspended,” Besser said.

Besser heard complaints from several students. “They were all for the cause,” Besser said. “What they objected to was the messaging that got it there.”

“There were concerns over the wording of the flyer, which called to fight oppression,” Besser said. 

A flyer distributed by the ASU to advertise the fundraiser read “YOU CAN HELP FIGHT OPPRESSION.”

Besser added that students reacted to “the poster on their table in the atrium, [which] had a map of [Israel/Palestine] that was looking bloodied and red with a Palestinian flag hanging down with a line like ‘decolonize Palestine.’”

There have been competing claims between Israelis and Palestinians over Israel and its occupied territories, which are mostly inhabited by Palestinians, for generations. Tensions are especially high at the moment. Recently, the Israeli government has been taking a much harder stance on the conflict.

“What frustrated students was a disconnect between wanting to raise money for Palestinian education and what seemed like a strong political message,” Besser said.

Weigert dismisses the complaints. “People were concerned that the use of the word oppression oversimplified the conflict,” Weigert said. “I thought that was a little bit laughable because we can all agree that the Palestinian people are oppressed.”

“I think the sad reality is that Palestinian life is something political,” Weigert said. “Even though our money isn’t going to a political cause and our messaging originally wasn’t meant to be political, the fact that there is discourse that is occurring about this is a small positive from these last couple of weeks.”

In a statement released last Tuesday, the JSU wrote that it “gives its full support to Jackson-Reed’s Arab Student Union in upholding the universal right to education.”

JSU president Zoe Goldman said that “everyone is on board with the cause of universal education; no one objects to that,” but “unfortunately the way it was messaged and communicated made some people uncomfortable.”

The fundraiser collected $230.12 in the three weeks it operated.

The SGA originally planned to include the winning grade of the fundraiser in its annual points race, a year-long inter-grade activities competition.

Science teacher and SGA co-sponsor Hallie Baskin said that “regarding the political aspect, that was something that SGA didn’t play a role in and remains neutral.” She added that “the SGA’s goal in the fundraiser was to promote school climate and spirit by helping with the class competition concept.”

Italian teacher and SGA co-sponsor Simona Spicciani-Gerhardt said “we thought it was the same type of fundraising that happened last year that was used as a grade competition.”

Besser said that “one of the most frustrating things with this whole situation is that it seems like adults failed to have constructive dialogue and discussion about this fundraiser, and the students involved suffered because of it.”

Minsker, Besser, and Bechara agreed that educational programming would be helpful to facilitate a constructive conversation through a panel on the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

Though originally scheduled for Wednesday, February 8, the panel has been postponed until later this spring. •