Bartlett High School pauses yearbook distribution due to alleged antisemitic photo

Days after Bartlett High School halted the distribution of its yearbook due to an image that school officials considered anti-Semitic, a Change.org petition racked up more than 1,400 signatures opposing the decision while a few students addressed the content of the images at a board of education meeting Monday night.

In a Friday email to parents and students, Bartlett High School’s interim principal, Melanie Meidel, said administrators immediately pulled back distribution to prevent further dissemination, calling the photo “offensive.”

“One of our top priorities is the well-being and respect of our students, staff and community,” Meidel wrote in the email obtained by the Tribune. “Regrettably, we have become aware that the yearbook was printed with a photo containing text that is considered anti-Semitic. “We will work to remove the page with the photo and will inform students and families when we summarize distribution of the yearbook.”

In the email, Meidel did not confirm which photo was flagged, although members of the school’s Muslim Student Association say they believe the photo in question, obtained by the Tribune, is of a group of students holding up a Palestinian flag and two signs at the school’s multicultural festival in March. One sign reads “from the river to the sea” written across, with Arabic text underneath reiterating the latter.

For Palestinians and their allies, the slogan “from the river to the sea” is a call for peace and equality after 75 years of Israeli statehood and decadeslong, open-ended Israeli military rule over millions of Palestinians, according to The Associated Press. However, pro-Israeli activists often hear a clear demand for Israel’s destruction.

According to Avi Gordon, executive director of Alums for Campus Fairness, he and other pro-Israeli community members believe the term “from the river to the sea” is an anti-Semitic charge.

“That chant calls for the dismantling of Israel from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the West,” Gordon said. “It not only makes Jewish and Israeli students feel unsafe but also ostracizes them.”

The other sign the students held in the photo reads “in our hundreds, in our millions, we are all Palestinian.”

On Friday, after some yearbooks had been distributed, students from the yearbook club approached a few MSA students who helped organize the multicultural festival to inquire about the posters in the photo from that day, said Bartlett senior and MSA member Aisha Ali.

“They said they were asking because someone reported the picture for inappropriate and offensive content, especially the Arabic text in the picture,” Ali said.

This interaction happened hours before the official email from Meidel went out, according to Ali.

Attempts to reach Bartlett High School’s yearbook staff were unsuccessful.

In an Instagram post Friday evening, the Bartlett High School MSA posted the photo they believe is being incorrectly deemed anti-Semitic.

The photo features 16 students in traditional Middle Eastern and South Asian clothing in front of a black wall decorated with small flags of the world. A group of male students are holding the Palestinian flag and a couple of female students are holding posters.

Asraar Siddiqui, a Bartlett High School senior, said the picture was from the “flag walk,” in which students representing various backgrounds walk with their flags to highlight the school’s diversity.

“None of these signs were created or displayed with malevolent intent and antisemitic prejudice, and there is nothing inherently offensive about them,” Siddiqui said.

Uday Jain, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the committee on social thought at the University of Chicago, said pro-Palestine advocates say the slogan is not anti-Semitic, but rather anti-Zionist. To dispel the idea that supporting Palestinians equates to anti-Jewish hate, it’s essential to differentiate Judaism from Zionist thought, he said.

Jain said students all across the country have been seeing the “vicious violence of this extremely harmful racial ideology,” hence proudly holding up signs that counter it.

“So while it might be emotionally uncomfortable and deeply challenging for some people to learn that an institution they consider sacrosanct is racist and genocidal in practice, they have no right to silence and criminalize students who are making this urgent, thoughtful, and loving criticism, ” Jain said.

In Friday’s email, Meidel said the administration will review and improve the yearbook approval process to prevent such occurrences in the future, taking into account the seriousness of the issue.

At Monday night’s U-46 district board meeting in Elgin, a few students expressed their disappointment at school officials’ decision to halt the distribution of Bartlett’s yearbook.

“I ask if the Bartlett administration knew the (Arabic meaning) before sending a schoolwide email calling our picture offensive — I like to ask, where exactly there’s antisemitic notions or beliefs?” said Ryhah Rizvi, a Bartlett senior and member of the MSA. “Releasing this email without consulting us led to a complete misinterpretation of the photos’ texts and caused us to feel insignificant among other cultures celebrated at the multicultural festival,” she said.

U-46 Superintendent Suzanne Johnson who chaired Monday night’s board meeting did not respond to requests for comment, but in an email, district officials said they are working through the matter.

“We are aware of the concerns regarding the Bartlett High School yearbook and are working on a follow-up, as we are committed to addressing this matter thoroughly in line with our Board Policy. We will be sharing an update very soon with our Bartlett High School students and families,” district officials said.

At Monday night’s meeting, Siddiqui — a former student adviser to the board — spoke about the outpouring of support from community members, parents, and alumni on Bartlett High School MSA’s Instagram page, including the Change.org petition.

Rizvi, who waited hours to speak at Monday’s meeting, said she was devastated at the school’s response, which created a problem when there wasn’t one.

“It would be sheer hypocrisy if the institutions that taught us to raise our voices are the same ones that are actively trying to silence us,” Rizvi said. “There’s nothing discriminatory about the liberation of any people, whether they’re white, black, Arab, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.”

[email protected]