David Chami, a volunteer board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Arizona, speaks out against the state superintendent’s recent opposition to Amnesty International school clubs in Phoenix on Nov. 15, 2022. Chami said calling for the elimination of student clubs violates the free speech rights of students. Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror
A local Muslim civil rights group is pushing back on criticism of Amnesty International in Arizona schools leveled last week by Tom Horne, the state’s schools chief, saying his comments violate the free speech rights of students and contribute to rising Islamophobia.
Earlier this month, the student-led chapters of UNICEF and Amnesty International at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale met during lunchtime to discuss the Israel-Hamas conflict, presenting a slideshow that, among other information, accused Israel of committing various human rights violations against Palestinians.
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An early iteration of the slideshow was posted to social media, where it drew ire from right wing activists. Horne responded by calling on superintendents across the state to disband clubs aligned with the two organizations and denouncing the slideshow as antisemitic and anti-American.
On Wednesday, the Arizona arm of the Council on American-Islamic Relations publicly excoriated Horne, saying the superintendent of public instruction took a political stance at the expense of Muslim and Arab-American students.
“Tom Horne sounded more like the ambassador to the state of Israel than he did the superintendent of public education in Arizona,” said volunteer board member and civil rights attorney David Chami. “He was more worried about protecting the image of the state of Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces than he was in protecting the students in his state.”
Chami, whose two sons are members of Desert Mountain High’s Amnesty International club, said Horne also attempted to publicly identify the club’s teacher sponsor, which prompted the sponsor’s resignation from the club, effectively disbanding it until another sponsor can be found. His actions and comments infringed on the free speech rights of the students, Chami said, adding that both of his sons and other students involved with the club have faced backlash, including hate on social media and being called Nazis.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the national counterpart to the Arizona chapter, recently reported a drastic rise in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incidents. In the month since Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel on Oct. 7, CAIR received 1,283 requests for help and reports of bias, a striking increase from 2022, when an average of 406 complaints were received in a 29-day period.
In an emailed statement, Horne, who is Jewish, strongly denounced discrimination against any students, but appeared to remain unmoved in his opposition to Amnesty International.
“I am adamantly opposed to discriminating against anyone based on their race, religion or ethnicity,” he said. “But objecting to people justifying the horrors of the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel is a different matter. It is worth noting that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, since October 7th there has been an astonishing 388 percent increase in anti-semitic incidents in the U.S.”
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, criticized Horne for “putting a target” on students’ backs and said it reminded her of the post 9/11 surge in discrimination she had to endure as a Palestinian-American student. Salman, who has family in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has been a vocal advocate of Palestinian rights, and earlier this month mobilized 16 of the state’s legislative Democrats to send a letter to the Biden administration urging the President to call for a cease-fire.
It’s Horne’s responsibility to be mindful of and advocate for all students, Salman said.
“When we have these positions of power as elected officials, they come with an immense amount of responsibility — especially when you are the top elected person who is supposed to be advocating for all students,” she said.
Kristine Harrington, a spokesperson for Scottsdale Unified School District, told the Arizona Mirror last week that the district had no plans to eliminate the clubs, and that doing so would in fact be in violation of federal law. The Equal Access Act of 1984 expressly prohibits public schools from denying students the opportunity to conduct meetings because of religious, political or philosophical content. Banning the clubs as Horne requested would amount to trespassing on the First Amendment rights of the students and force the district to forfeit any federal funds.
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