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Public comments reflect fear, under-representation at Board meeting

On Thursday, Nov. 16, the San Mateo Union High School District Board fielded public comments and concerns from 65 speakers regarding the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and Superintendent Randall Booker’s initial October statement addressing the conflict. The public comment occurred over the course of three hours, and the Board could listen but not respond.

At the Oct. 12 Board meeting, the public speakers, most of whom were Jewish, expressed anger and disappointment at Booker’s neutrality in his initial statement. At last Thursday’s meeting, the majority of speakers were pro-Palestinian — many of whom commended Booker for his neutrality, expressing gratitude for Booker’s inclusivity on all sides.

“It is disheartening that [Booker’s] empathy for Gazans was misinterpreted by some public commenters as antisemitic,” speaker Sam Hindi said. “Empathy for one group does not equal hate for another.”

Many of the speakers shared this sentiment and defended Booker’s decision to release a neutral statement.

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Throughout the meeting, there were also differing opinions on the meaning behind the phrase “Free Palestine,” whether the phrase is harmful and its association with the phrase “From the River to the Sea.”

“There is nothing more antisemitic than [‘Free Palestine’],” Jewish speaker Leya Leydiker said. “No other culture gets to appropriate and minimize our experience by explaining to us what they think that means. You can be pro-Palestinian and you can choose other words.”

Palestinian speakers argued that the statement was simply a call for the freedom of Palestinians and had no implications for the Jewish community or Israel.

“I’m disappointed that some people falsely believe that the phrase ‘Free Palestine’ means that our freedom comes at the cost of another person’s freedom,” Palestinian speaker Rami Asia said. “It is not a phrase that comes with a hidden agenda.”

Another issue discussed by the speakers was the suppression of Palestinian voices in the district — both at Board meetings and at school.

“I have observed that the safety and well-being of our Palestinian students often takes a backseat to the concerns of others,” Burlingame English teacher Reema Asia said. “Palestinian students feel silenced, as they fear that sharing their thoughts that we deserve basic human rights like freedom, will be falsely labeled as antisemitic.”

Some speakers also encouraged the Board to ensure that the district is a safe space for students and teachers to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts.

“Our teachers aren’t allowed to talk about it, nobody’s addressing [the students’] mental health, we are really failing our kids,” speaker Shirley Azzghayer said. “October 7th should have shown the district that Palestine is not something you can ignore.”

Azzghayer and others also raised the difference between antisemitism and antizionism, as several speakers believed that many were unaware of the distinction between the two.

“This is the fault of the school system for not educating our children,” Azzghayer said. “Perhaps there would be less confusion and more understanding if we clarified what the difference is between antisemitism and antizionism.”

Palestinian speakers also drew attention to the lack of education about Palestinian history in the district’s social science and Ethnic Studies programs.

“I encourage the district to support teachers to not be afraid to teach about [Palestinian] history, and as a result, a lot of my colleagues don’t feel comfortable teaching about it,” teacher Melissa Poblete said. “Our students don’t know the history.”

While there were many differing opinions throughout the three-hour meeting, what almost every speaker shared was the concern for the safety of their children. The Board reiterated that it is their top priority to ensure the safety and well-being of all students in the district.

“We can be united against hate. We can make sure our students are critical thinkers, no matter what side you’re on,” President Greg Land said. “There was a speaker tonight who said, ‘We believe in building a better future for our children, and we want to feel safe and included.’ That’s exactly right. That’s what we do.”

This story was originally published on The Burlingame B on November 28, 2023.