Edina A Microcosm For How Israel-Hamas War Affects Schools, Jewish Community Response

A deluge of anti-Israel posts on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok shared by peers. Tone-deaf comments from students and teachers. Cases of direct harassment, online and in-person, from other students.

And one 10th grader in an English class – assigned to read “Night,” a book by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel – whose takeaway was that today’s Israelis are like the Nazis, and seeing Israeli policy toward Palestinians as equal to what the Nazis did to Jews in Wiesel’s time.

Comparing Israelis to Nazis is “textbook antisemitism,” said Ethan Roberts, deputy executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC).

This is the climate faced by Jewish students in Minnesota during the Israel-Hamas war. Sparked on Oct. 7 when Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls Gaza, brutally massacred over 1,400 Israelis, the war has spilled onto social media and filtered down to schools.

As antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment spikes, and Jews here mourn with friends and family in Israel, school districts and Minnesota Jews are navigating a new chapter in a long-running story about how welcome – and safe – Jews feel at school.

Last week, with a student-led “Walk Out For Palestine” at Edina High School, Edina Public Schools became a focal point for Jewish worry. The event was organized from an Instagram page that said, “As minorities we need to raise our voice and continue to fight against our oppressors…not speaking up is giving the green light to the Zionists,” and called Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza an ethnic cleansing and genocide against Palestinians.

“We have a lot of very unhappy and concerned Jewish parents in Edina, and we share their concerns,” Roberts said. “There’s a lot of antisemitism right now within schools, Edina is no exception to that…I’ve been at the JCRC since ’07, I don’t remember a time it has ever been this awful.”

At the forefront of managing this concern is the JCRC, advocating on behalf of the Jewish community with school districts. Doing so means aiming for clarity amid an increasingly fractured and high-stakes discourse about Israelis, Palestinians, antisemitism, and Islamophobia – while school districts and students parse out what to say about international policy and news in the fog of war.

The Walk Out

One post on the Edina High School walk out Instagram page said that “Israel bombed a hospital filled with innocent civilians and killed 800 people.” That referred to an Oct. 17 blast at the al-Ahli Hospital that the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry blamed on an Israeli airstrike, estimating 500 people killed.

Most analysis of the hospital explosion since then concludes it wasn’t caused by Israel, and that likely, a misfired rocket by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another terrorist group in Gaza, is the culprit. Visual investigations journalists and munitions experts are still hedging, unable to definitively verify what happened without visiting the site.

But thanks to an initial wave of headlines with Hamas’ framing, some people continue to outright blame Israel. To the JCRC, this amounts to a modern blood libel – the medieval accusation that Jews purposefully murdered children, serving as an excuse for antisemitic riots and pogroms.

From real death-causing explosion to news controversy, now the hospital blast was part of the walk out rhetoric that the JCRC asked the Edina school district to disavow.

“If [this accusation] is happening in promotion of an event that’s going to happen at your school, and you can’t publicly weigh in and say, ‘that is not true,’ then you leave open the possibility that people who read it might think, well, this is a contested idea,” Roberts said.

To the JCRC, this was a straightforward ask. The students have a First Amendment free speech right to express themselves with a walk out – and the JCRC was not asking Edina to cancel the protest or discipline students for their speech.

Instead, the JCRC aimed to get the school district to use “not their punitive authority, but their moral authority, to say that’s wrong,” Roberts said.

But across school districts, not only in Edina, getting more than general statements from administrations proved difficult.

“We’ve gotten to the point where, look, we’re not even asking you to weigh in any more about Israel versus Hamas,” Roberts said. “We’re just asking you to call out instances of antisemitism which are happening within your institution. And also we have said, if there are instances of Islamophobia, call that out, too.”

The walk out took place peacefully, with police and school administrators watching and recording the students. But according to the walk out Instagram page, one student was suspended for chanting the pro-Palestinian slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Many Jews and Jewish organizations, including the JCRC, consider the slogan to be antisemitic, and see it as advocating for the erasure of Israel and Jews between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea.

In a meeting with superintendent Stacie Stanley, Edina admin did not tell the JCRC any details about the student’s disciplining – but did say they consider the slogan to be antisemitic, and because of that, a violation of the district’s code of conduct.

Roberts re-emphasized that the JCRC never asked the district to discipline students. But to the JCRC, and many Jewish families, Edina’s stance is a welcome sign that they are being heard by administrators, and that Jewish concerns are being taken seriously.

“You want to be believed, right, and as Jews, as a JCRC, we have a perspective of what antisemitism is, and we appreciate it when those who are not Jewish trust us on that,” Roberts said.

Supporting students

In response to the walk out, the JCRC worked with the Edina High School Jewish Student Union to put together a processing session for students on Friday morning.

“It was important to us to provide a space for the students to come together, feel supported by their community, be able to express their emotions in a safe space, and ask questions about this disturbing event that took place at their school,” said Sami Rahamim, the JCRC’s communications director and one of the co-organizers of the student gathering.

Roughly 15 students – most Jewish but some non-Jews – attended the session, which was run by Rabbi Debra Rappaport, the director of Hineni, the adult learning program of the Talmud Torah of St. Paul.

Students reflected on the walk out, Israel-Hamas war, and rhetoric at Edina, first in quiet by writing on notecards and then in a group discussion. That kind of personal check-in was important, Rappaport said.

The session was about “holding tension across a few different things: One is that they’re high school students, and they should get to be high school students,” she said. Another is the tension “with hate speech and threats that are going on in their environment and impact them.”

Some students are deeply connected to the events in Israel and Gaza, while others may be less personally connected but still affected by the atmosphere at the high school.

“My sense is that the students are feeling a range of emotions,” Rahamim said. “They are hurting and concerned for their loved ones in Israel. They are confused about the information that they are hearing in the school and circulating online from their peers. And they’re feeling helpless, like many of us are, to do something positive, when the situation feels so bleak.”

One question that came up during the discussion: What to make of the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Rahamim explained to the students what the slogan means to many Jews, but he and Rappaport encouraged the students to have respectful conversations with other students, too. Many Jews might see the slogan as antisemitic, but that doesn’t mean that every person who chanted it was intending, or knew about, antisemitism associated with it.

Also important: Not to pressure students into feeling they have to do “Hasbara,” or advocacy and public relations in defense of Israel.

“It felt important to say to [the students],  it’s not up to you to defend Israel, it’s not up to you to defend the Jewish people,” Rappaport said. “But it sure is in your purview, if there are openings, and if there are people you have relationships with, to help them understand the impact and implications of these words [like the Palestinian slogan].”

Continuing to build relationships, ask questions, and educate about the Jewish perspective is key to the JCRC’s and Rappaport’s approach to addressing the divisions brought on by the war – both for students, but also for adults, who are likewise struggling to navigate current events.

“The value of giving the benefit of the doubt is so essential,” Rappaport said. “Why go down the road of separation when you could build a bridge by saying, ‘Hey, what does that mean to you?’ [That’s] part of what’s tricky with this whole thing.”

It’s hard to call this session a success, but for both Rahamim and Rappaport it feels like an important step in supporting students. The JCRC is reaching out to Jewish Student Unions at other high schools to organize similar events.

“I’m grateful that we had the opportunity…to be there to support them, to help answer their questions,” Rahamim said. “And find their footing at this really precarious moment in the history of the Jewish people.”

Said Rappaport: “It mattered to have Jewish professionals show up and, just by our presence to say, ‘you matter,’ to these kids. ‘Your experience matters. You’re not alone in this. We’ve got you.’”

Thorny conversations, no winners

As school districts navigate the climate of the Israel-Hamas war, there are no winners.

Even as Jews and Muslims across the country try to find common ground amid rising antisemitism and Islamophobia, it seems like the communities are fundamentally at odds over the war. That leaves no easy steps for schools responding to Jewish and Muslim concerns while getting a crash course on thorny issues.

Take, for example, the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” that allegedly resulted in one Edina High School student being suspended, and that the district views as antisemitic.

Students that took part in the walk out, according to the walk out Instagram page, say that “our intention was never to target any religious or ethnic group,” and that the suspension “is stripping our First Amendment right from us…our objective was to facilitate a platform for open discourse on a pressing global matter.”

The Instagram page also alleges that Edina administrators didn’t allow walk out participants back in the high school unless they got rid of their Palestinian flags.

Edina Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment from TC Jewfolk.

To the Minnesota chapter of American Muslims for Palestine, the response to students was racist. On an Instagram story, in a script for calling the school in protest, AMP MN said that the slogan is “a peaceful chant that calls for complete Palestinian freedom from Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid regime.”

Some Jews also hold this view, and have been reaching out to Edina to protest how students at the walk out were treated – meaning more voices for the administration to parse through.

But that view is diametrically opposed to how many core Jewish institutions, like the JCRC, understand the slogan. And after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack – driven by Hamas’ views that Israel should be completely destroyed – Jews are especially sensitive to slogans that seem to leave no room for Israel to exist.

“This is a Hamas chant with genocidal consequences,” Roberts, of the JCRC, said. “That may not be the intent of everyone who uses that chant. And that happens, right? There’s a lot of language out there that, maybe that’s not your intent. [But] it doesn’t make it not antisemitic.”

Sorting out the intent and meaning of rhetoric like this is complicated for schools – and whether or not it’s within bounds of free speech rights to suspend a student over the slogan. Then comes understanding the complex Israeli-Palestinian policy implications that affect why many Jews view it as problematic.

“What does that mean, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ – is that, you know, Hamas rules?” Roberts said. “Or is it just under the Palestinian Authority? Is that one state – [then what] happens to 7.2 million Jews [in Israel]?”

These are questions that have befuddled leagues of Middle East experts and peace negotiators, now a backdrop for how schools respond to Jewish students and parents concerned about local antisemitism, and students protesting Israeli airstrikes in Gaza that have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians while retaliating against Hamas.

For the JCRC, Edina made the right call by seeing the slogan as antisemitic.

But “I don’t think anything is resolved,” Roberts said. “I think that we’re moving in a good direction. But what comes next is incredibly important, not just for the Jewish community, but important for all the students because we need education.”

That’s the next big move in the JCRC’s playbook for responding to the current climate. In the meeting with Edina’s superintendent, the JCRC offered to educate district staff, teachers, and students about the Jewish perspective. Edina was receptive to that offer, Roberts said.

“Our team [also] welcomes questions from students who might be skeptical,” Roberts said. “Give us a chance to sit down and explain where we’re coming from, and why this is hurtful, and what the consequences of what ‘The river to the sea’ means for our people, especially in light of what happened on October 7. And I think we would all be in a better place.”

As part of advocating for the Jewish community with schools, the JCRC’s work is also about turning inward and making sure Jews are being responsible in their approach to these issues. Roberts emphasized the need to “lower the temperature” on the discourse in schools and elsewhere.

“Don’t be hateful, don’t engage in gross stereotypes about Muslims or Arabs or Palestinians,” he said. “Don’t lump all Palestinians into the same basket of Hamas. Have compassion for the people of Gaza…there’s a lot of children in Gaza who are absolutely caught in the crossfire. And there are ways to do this [community work in Minnesota] that does not have to make it [more] awful, [even if already] the situation is awful.”