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Michigan school board approves Mideast cease-fire resolution that had stoked controversy

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A public school district in Michigan approved a resolution calling for a bilateral cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war while also encouraging its teachers to discuss the conflict in its classrooms following an emotionally charged meeting Wednesday.

The resolution approved by the Ann Arbor Public Schools board appears to be among the first times that a public school system in the United States has made such a statement on the international conflict.

It followed an over five-hour meeting that stretched into the early hours of Thursday after 120 people gave public comments in both support and opposition of the resolution.

Tensions remained high throughout the meeting in Ann Arbor, a community close to 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Detroit and home to the University of Michigan. Similar tensions have been seen across the nation in response to the war in Gaza, which is now entering its fourth month following a deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants.

The conflict has divided college campuses, where long-simmering tensions are occasionally erupting in violence and shattering the sense of safety that makes colleges hubs of free discourse. Dozens of U.S. cities, including Ann Arbor, have approved cease-fire resolutions that have no legal authority but reflect the pressure on local governments to speak up on the Israel-Hamas war.

The resolution passed in Ann Arbor was one of the first times that a public school system in Michigan had considered such a statement, said Don Wotruba, executive director at Michigan Association of School Boards, prior to the scheduled vote.

“What they’re thinking about doing would be pretty rare, if not the first time. Particularly as it’s related to a more international situation,” Wotruba said.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools board discusses a resolution calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war at Pioneer High School, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Ann Arbor Public Schools board discusses a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war at Pioneer High School on Wednesday.Joey Cappelletti / AP

The district “expresses support for a bilateral ceasefire in Gaza and Israel,” according to the resolution, and “encourages educators within the Ann Arbor School District to facilitate informed and respectful dialogue about the conflict.”

Four of the seven board members voted in favor of the resolution, with two abstaining from the vote. Rima Mohammad, who is Palestinian, had been one of the most outspoken members in support of it.

“This resolution says that kids who have names like mine are seen, heard and valued,” Mohammad said just prior to the vote.

Some parents in the district, which holds nearly 17,000 students, had expressed outrage about the resolution, and a petition opposing it collected nearly 2,000 signatures. The petition said that the issue has taken resources away from other important matters such as hiring a new superintendent, which the district is without.

“This resolution does not help advance the quality of life of one single child in this district,” said Daniel Sorkin, a parent of two students in the district who spoke out against the resolution Wednesday.

Tasneem Madani, a student teacher in the district, supported the resolution and stressed its importance, saying that “our students are watching us.”

“It is my responsibility, particularly as an English teacher, to help students develop the skills to engage in informed academic dialogue in safe spaces,” Madani said at Wednesday’s meeting.

Other schools across the country have contemplated similar resolutions. In California, the Oakland Unified School District has considered a resolution calling for a cease-fire and release of hostages in Israel and Palestine, but has yet to pass it.

Ann Arbor has long been known for its progressive politics, but the city and its university has found itself divided over the Gaza conflict beyond the confines of its public schools.

Nearly 6,500 Jewish students attend the University of Michigan, a total of 15% of its entire student population, according to the University of Michigan Hillel. A significant number of Arab American students also attend the university, which is near one of the largest Muslim populations in the nation.

In December, University of Michigan President Santa Ono barred students from voting on two resolutions related to the Israel-Hamas war, calling them “controversial and divisive.” The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations accused the university of suppressing free speech at the time.

“The proposed resolutions have done more to stoke fear, anger and animosity on our campus than they would ever accomplish as recommendations to the university,” Ono said in an online post at the time.

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