The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says it filed a complaint against Edina Public Schools, claiming the district silenced Muslim students who expressed support for Palestine and targeted students who spoke out in support of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.
Two Somali students were suspended after chanting the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” during a student walkout at Edina High School in support of Palestine Oct. 25.
In the complaint announced Monday, CAIR said it is asking Edina Public Schools to expunge the suspensions from the students’ records. It is also asking the district to issue “clear speech guidelines” that protect students who support Palestine’s “legitimate rights,” prohibit discrimination against students who engage in speech supporting Palestine, and guarantee pro-Palestine speech will not be suppressed.
Bruce Nestor, a volunteer attorney with Palestine Legal who is working with CAIR, said he filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of students who were accused of being antisemitic and suspended for three days.
Nestor defended the students’ right to use the chant in a press conference Monday. He said the chant is used by elected representatives, demonstrators who support the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and by Jewish people who support the rights of Palestinian people in their “historic homeland.”
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, was censured by the House after promoting the slogan.
Nestor said Edina Public Schools officials adopted the view of “some people” that the slogan is antisemitic, even though no disruption was caused as a result of the students’ chants.
“[The chant] is an aspirational call for a country within the territory of historic Palestine, which is free for all people — Jews, Christians, Muslims — and it is not a call in any way to be antisemitic or target Jews for any type of harm or harassment. It’s our contention that the Edina High School’s actions to suspend these students based purely on their speech also constitutes discrimination on the basis of religion and national origin,” Nestor said.
The phrase ‘”from the river to the sea” is a direct quotation from the Hamas charter, according to Mark Rotenberg, vice president and general counsel for Hillel International and former University of Minnesota chief legal officer.
According to Rotenberg, the chant is a demand for the elimination of the only Jewish state on earth, and its replacement with “an entity called Palestine.”
“This is not some kind of random chant that has been developed in the United States. Hamas is a recognized terrorist organization,” Rotenberg said. “The chant is understood by many Jews to be an attack on the Jewish people and on the Jewish state. Non-Jewish people don’t get to have a veto on what Jewish people understand to be antisemitic any more than white folks get to have a veto on what black folks consider to be racist.”
A Jewish graduate of Edina High School, who lived in Israel for two years, said those in opposition to an Israeli state have been using the chant consistently for years. School districts that have taken decisive action against antisemitic speech have put an end to unrest, not exacerbated it, he said.
He said if students are using the chant without knowledge of its origin, “shame on them.”
“They have been using this slogan for decades, and it is specifically targeting Jews. There’s one river and one sea and what exists between them is Israel. This is a call for the total destruction of the Jewish state,” said the graduate, who asked to remain anonymous.
Nestor argued the suspension was unfair because Edina Public Schools issued a statement after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas in which it acknowledged the trauma and suffering Jewish students may be experiencing but failed to issue any statement on the suffering of Muslim students in the past 10 years as a result of attacks on Palestinians.
Jaylani Hussein, executive director for CAIR-MN, said his organization has seen an increased number of cases from parents, students, and teachers who support Palestine who say they are being bullied and discouraged from participating in pro-Palestine demonstrations.
He said Muslim students are offended by the “unbalanced statements” issued by school districts in the state in support of Israel.
“We’ve had now a number of incidents where students have been bullied by administrators to not hold the protest,” he said. “Many students have had a number of protests in secret. We have also seen inconsistent discipline.”
Edina Public Schools issued a statement affirming students’ First Amendment right to free expression but said “students do not have unfettered First Amendments rights while on school property and they do not have a right under the First Amendment to engage in speech that is substantially disruptive or that violates District policies.”
According to the statement, the district has policies prohibiting any type of discrimination against students based on their religion or any other basis protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
“Our core beliefs in Edina Public Schools are grounded in the inherent dignity of all people. We value and appreciate the diversity of all of our students. Edina Public Schools deeply condemns islamophobia and antisemitism. We will not tolerate hateful or inappropriate comments or behaviors and will work diligently to provide a safe and inclusive environment for our students and staff,” according to the statement.
Rotenberg said Hillel has seen an unprecedented increase in physical violence, bullying, intimidation, and marginalization of Jewish students on campuses across the United States since Oct. 7.
Sheila Qualls is an award-winning journalist and former civilian editor of an Army newspaper. Prior to joining Alpha News, she was a Christian Marriage and Family columnist at Patheos.com and a personal coach. Her work has been published in The Upper Room, the MOPS blog, Grown and Flown, and The Christian Post. She speaks nationally on issues involving faith and family.