Protesting the discipline of students for a chant deemed by many to be antisemitic, the Edina School Board’s meeting Monday night was adjourned early as several Jewish parents in attendance were subjected to antisemitic chants, and chants of “shame on you” as they left the room with a police escort.
Last month, an attorney representing two Muslim students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, after the two students were given a three-day suspension for chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” during an October walkout protesting Israel’s attacks on Gaza in response to the attack from Hamas on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,200 Israelis with another 240 taken hostage.
Students were reportedly warned of the consequences for using that chant and were suspended after the third such warning.
Video showed that chant broke out again from the protesters after the board of education members, and photos showed signs that said “Fuck Israel (Is-not real)” taped to American flags in the district offices.
“These are not the decision makers of anything relating to Middle East policy. These are Edina school board members who are trying to keep safe and respectful educational institutions,” said Rachel, a parent of Edina students, who was at the meeting with her son. “Sitting in that room, I think it’s so disingenuous for that group to use that phrase and pretend that they don’t know what it means to the Jewish people. And if you want to convey your message, find language that doesn’t imply genocide for the Jewish people.”
In a statement put out in advance of the rally in Edina, the Jewish Community Relations Council for Minnesota and the Dakotas said its “vision for the future remains a two-state solution with an independent Palestine living in peace and security next to a Jewish, democratic state of Israel.”
“The divisive slogan ‘From the River to the sea, Palestine will be free’ runs contrary to our unifying vision of two states for two peoples,” the statement said. “It is also antisemitic, for it denies Israel’s right to exist and is heard by many Jews as calling for the destruction of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state.”
The chant has also been called antisemitic by national organizations. The ADL points out the slogan has been used by many anti-Israel voices, including supporters of Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls Gaza and perpetrated the attack on Israel on Oct. 7.
“It is fundamentally a call for a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, territory that includes the State of Israel, which would mean the dismantling of the Jewish state,” the ADL wrote. “It is an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland.”
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations organized the event in Edina and Its executive director, Jaylani Hussein, led the chant in the pre-meeting rally outside the district office building. Hussein said the whole controversy could have been avoided if Edina had acknowledged the plight of Palestinians in its October statement after the war started.
“For those of us who are using that phrase, it is contextualized in the way we see it: 75 years of occupation, Palestinians are hopeful for a Palestinian state, they’re hopeful for Palestinians to have dignity and, freedom of movement,” Hussain said. “And anyone who believes that this is a way to have a violent approach to the freedom of Palestinians, that’s not what we’re calling for, not chanting for. But everyone has the right to interpret things on their own.”
Ethan Roberts, the JCRC’s deputy executive director, has said the chant has genocidal consequences.
“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.”
Regular business, then escalation
The meeting had started simply enough; Mert Woodard, the district’s director of finance and operations, presented the annual requirement of the “truth in taxation” information prior to a public comment period about the information he relayed to the school board. The first two speakers in the public comment period both attempted to talk about things that weren’t part of the topic, and took a 10-minute recess of the meeting as the crowd grew louder.
“It escalated really fast,” said one Jewish parent at the meeting, who was given anonymity.
Said Maria Loucks, another Jewish parent at the meeting: “There was nothing that could be done. There were people there that had come for the actual agenda that were sort of stupefied.”
Hussein placed the blame on the school board for limiting the public comment period to nine speakers and 30 minutes of total time.
“It was a contested meeting, and in those situations, they should be prepared for listening,” he said. The general public comment period was the next item up on the agenda. “All they had to do is redirect the person and say, ‘If there’s no one going to speak on truth in taxation, let us at least move into motion to approve’ or whatever they had to approve, and then we’re back to public comments.”
The Edina School Board, in a statement sent to families Tuesday evening, said that “Members of the audience were ruled out of order for violating the clearly stated rules for the District’s truth in taxation hearing. This interruption prevented the Board from conducting the business items on its agenda. The Board had scheduled time for public comment later in the meeting, and that would have been the appropriate time for members of the public to address the Board on their chosen topics.”
The email said that providing a public comment period is not required under state statute, but offering one “must be balanced with our ability to conduct the meeting.”
The district email also addressed the signage in the hallway and the chants during the meeting.
“We ask students and community members to recognize that regardless of intent, there was language and signage utilized last night that is hurtful to many in our community,” the email said. “The Edina School District strongly condemns islamophobia and antisemitism in all forms. We ask students and community members to partner with us in ensuring a safe and inclusive environment for all students. Our hearts are with all our students, staff, and families who are grieving or worried about their loved ones in the Middle East.”
Both Loucks and Rachel said that after the meeting recessed, protestors took over the whole room.
“There was one woman who was smacking her hand on the witness table, shouting, screaming, talking about the really hard things that are happening in Gaza that we all feel very distraught over,” Rachel said. “But this is an Edina school board meeting. It didn’t sound like they came to give respectful testimony. They came to make a political point. And it was really unfortunate.”
The anonymous parent said that the disruption happened because the district took a stand that some disagreed with.
“[The school district is], I think – as a parent in the district – finding the right balance between allowing students their freedoms of speech and assembly and ensuring that they know where the line is and holding them accountable when they cross it,” the parent said. “And from that perspective, that feels really supportive.
“I think the reason you’re seeing such a response from people on behalf of the students is that they want to be able to say things unfettered, without consequences for their actions. That’s not happening here.”