Tensions stemming from the war between Israel and Hamas spilled over to a recent festival at an Atlanta private school.
The Oct. 22 WorldFest at the Atlanta International School included tables representing Israel and Palestine, set up by Jewish and Arab parents.
Based on conversations with Jewish and Arab parents, who asked not to be identified by name, a desire to focus on food and culture — and keep politics out of the event — fell victim to disputes over signs, symbols, and language.
The parents of Jewish students — upset by displays that they felt conveyed an anti-Israel message — already were irritated by what they felt was the school’s inadequate response to the Hamas attacks Oct. 7, in which an estimated 1,400 Israelis were killed and more than 200 kidnapped and taken into Gaza.
The parents have conveyed their objections in meetings with AIS Head of School Kevin Glass. In response to questions, the school provided the following statement: “Atlanta International School (AIS) is committed to its core values of mutual respect and understanding, in an intentionally inclusive and intercultural community. All forms of discrimination and identity based harm are not tolerated at AIS. Correspondence and discussions between the school and our parents are treated in confidence, for the safety of our community.”
The AJT was told that after the Hamas attacks, Jewish parents asked to have an Israel table and that Arab parents then requested a separate Palestine table.
According to people who were present at the WorldFest complaints prompted the school to ask that the Palestine table remove a sign that read, “All United for a Free Palestine,” and the display of a scarf on which the colors of the Palestinian flag covered the entirety of Israel. The Israel table was asked to remove a sign that read “Israel” with a Star of David, but that was rescinded. The booth also displayed an Israeli flag.
A nearly 12-minute video posted on Instagram by a member of the Arab community and photos circulated on social media showed the signage and displays at the Palestine table — including QR codes to raise relief funds to support Palestinians in Gaza.
“We weren’t trying to be provocative. We wanted to represent Palestine in a way that we thought was appropriate,” an Arab parent of Palestinian descent said of the display. “We never ever, ever intended to offend anyone. We never intended to make any kind of a political statement.”
Regarding the map on the scarf, “To us, that represents historical Palestine. We are not trying to offend anybody. That is how we think of historical Palestine,” the Arab parent said.
There also was confusion about the lyrics of a song played during a performance of a traditional Arab dance, the Dabke. The video included the song, “Falastini” (Palestinian in Arabic), by Toni Qattan, a Jordanian Christian of Palestinian descent. That song’s lyrics are milder than those to another Qattan song, “Falastine” (Palestine), which supporters of Israel likely would find more militant.
Israel’s Consul General to the Southeast Anat Sultan-Dodan was sharply critical in a Facebook post that read: “While celebrating world cultures, the Atlanta International School gave a platform to celebrating those who seek genocide and the destruction of the State of Israel. When the State of Israel is displayed entirely in a Palestinian flag, it is a call for the elimination of the State of Israel. Shame on this educational institution for giving the stage to hate, especially when an entire nation is grieving the largest massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust.” The comments after her post were overwhelmingly supportive.
The Atlanta-based regional offices of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League both contacted the school.
We weren’t trying to be provocative. We wanted to represent Palestine in a way that we thought was appropriate. We never ever, ever intended to offend anyone. We never intended to make any kind of a political statement.
AIS, located in Buckhead, opened its doors in 1985 and has an estimated 1,350 students in grades pre-K through 12.
On Oct. 10, three days after the Hamas attacks, Glass sent an email to AIS parents that read:
“I am sure you are deeply saddened by the events and the loss of so many lives in Israel and Gaza over the last few days. We are all hoping and praying for an end to the violence. Our hearts go out to all the innocent victims.
“Our AIS community is united in the desire for peace and safety for all. The purpose of all IB programs is to develop internationally minded people who recognize our common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet. Together, our aim is to help to create a better and more peaceful world. Racism, Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination are not tolerated at AIS.
“Our AIS community is a place where we cherish living, learning and sharing spaces as friends and colleagues with those who have different cultures, beliefs and backgrounds. And in this very complicated, fraught international situation, it is more important than ever to treat all those who may be impacted with care and respect.
“We have students and families who are directly affected by what is happening in Israel and in Gaza. Many have friends and families living in the region who they are deeply worried about.”
Jewish parents complained that by not specifically citing the Hamas killings of Jews on kibbutzim and villages in southern Israel, as well as participants at a rave concert in the desert, the email was insufficiently vague.
A second email by Glass, sent a few hours later, read:
“In follow up to the email I sent earlier, I would like to reiterate that our AIS community is united in the pursuit of peace and safety for all. We vehemently condemn the recent acts of terror against the people of Israel.
“We have students and families that are directly and indirectly affected by this violence. As shared earlier, our counseling teams are working with our teachers to offer support for our students in an age appropriate way.”
According to participants at an Oct. 25 meeting with parents of Jewish students, Glass reiterated the school’s desire to maintain neutrality on political issues.
One parent told the AJT, “I don’t know what anybody was expecting out of the meeting, but no one left getting anything they expected.” Even before the WorldFest event, “They already knew that the Jewish community was on edge about the school’s tepid response to the terrorist attacks in the first place,” he said.
“Silence is compliance,” this parent said, that by not condemning Hamas, the school had given tacit support to anti-Israel behavior.
Another Jewish parent said that parents want the school administration to be aware of how the current political climate is affecting the Jewish community and “to ensure that our kids are being protected physically and emotionally, because of things that are going on that they might not be aware of,” she said.
“The bigger ask that some parents shared and tried to convey in the meeting was that they want an actual public acknowledgement from the school about what happened at WorldFest and clear rules to prevent that from happening again,” she said.