Contradicting previous statements from Autrey Mill Middle School officials, a map displaying Palestine at a Multicultural Night last week may have been pre-approved before the event. In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Georgia, discussed the display and resulting community reaction.
In contrast to initial statements from the school condemning the action and vowing to investigate, Mitchell said that the school had approved the display ahead of time.
“The school approved this, and we have emails confirming they approved it, last year and this year,” he said. “The school did nothing wrong by approving this exhibit and the kids did nothing wrong.”
In a letter to students and families March 8, Principal Trey Martin of Autrey Mill said he would be investigating with district leaders and “any necessary actions would be taken including accountability for those responsible.”
“Let me be clear, we condemn this attempt to use our Multicultural Night for one’s own political or religious agenda,” the letter read. “Please know that this type of display is not acceptable nor supported by the faculty and staff of Autrey Mill Middle School.”
Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz of Chabad of North Fulton spoke to Martin this morning and explained that he did not get the impression that the school had approved the display.
“The point that he made is that, up until this point, there was no need to inspect and approve the displays because it was just a cultural night,” Minkowicz said. “I think this really caught them by surprise, but it’s a learning opportunity.”
Mitchell, representing a number of students at Autrey Mill and their families, explained that the map on display was a historic map of Palestine between 1920 and 1948 under the British Mandate and was intended, not as a political statement, but as a reflection of the students’ family histories.
While the map was not dated at the event, it does reflect Palestine’s borders under British governance prior to Israel’s founding in 1948. However, the map lists Jordan as its neighbor to the west, when between 1920 and 1948 that land was referred to as Trans-Jordan.
He also noted that at a past multicultural night, an Israeli culture table had included a map of Israel that omitted any mention of the Gaza Strip or West Bank, instead including them in Israel’s territory. This caused no outrage, indicating a “double standard,” Mitchell said.
“According to our own state department, those are occupied Palestinian territories,” he said, pointing to a U.S. State Department map. “When that display was set up, no one objected, no one contacted the media, no one called the school to punish the kids, … nor should they have.
“Israeli students have the right to celebrate their history and to imagine a broader Israel if they want to, and Palestinian-Americans have the right to celebrate their history and put up a map of how Palestine used to look.”
He noted that students had been receiving backlash online and in school and urged the community to have these discussions as adults and leave the children out of it.
“What has happened now will hopefully create this opportunity for a teachable moment, but I wish it did not happen at the price of these kids having to live in a safe educational environment,” Mitchell said.
Although he had heard positive sentiments about Martin, Mitchell criticized the school’s response for failing to protect its students.
“That action turned what was a simple misunderstanding into a public spectacle and it put a target on the back of these young Palestinian-American kids and Muslim kids and anyone who looks Muslim at that school,” he said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta provided a statement from president and CEO Eric Robbins.
“We were very disturbed by this situation but impressed with the mobilization of our community and the ADL to address the situation and to lead the charge in how we can help avoid it in the future. We are fortunate to have a community that is working together to address these types of incidents and, first and foremost, to educate people so such things don’t happen in the future. We are proud to also have a cohort of Shinshinim in Atlanta – young Israeli volunteers – who can assist in educating the community.”
Autrey Mill directed requests for comments to the Fulton County School District. Following the press conference Tuesday, Fulton County Schools provided an updated statement to the AJT:
“Fulton County Schools values the different cultures of our students and communities. Throughout the year and in various forms, FCS schools hold a myriad of events that celebrate diversity, inclusivity and respect for all. FCS schools welcome the cultures and groups that make up the individual communities to participate in these events.
“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.”
Stay tuned for updates on this continuing story.