Photo that stirred antisemitism concerns fuels yearbook controversy at Bartlett High School

Elgin Area Unit District 46 Superintendent Suzanne Johnson responded late Wednesday to a public outcry about a controversial photo in the Bartlett High School yearbook, saying a message included in picture did not reflect “the values and beliefs of Bartlett High School and School District U-46.”

She said the district would resume distribution of the yearbooks, which were delayed over a photo the school’s interim principal described in an email to parents as “offensive” and “antisemitic.” However, Johnson did not specify whether the photo had been removed or when the yearbooks would be available.

Though the district has not publicly identified the photo, members of the school’s Muslim Student Association posted the photo they believe to be the point of contention on social media. In the photograph, a group of students hold a Palestinian flag and two signs. One of the signs reads “In our hundreds, in our millions, we are all Palestinian,” and the other reads “from the river to the sea.”

“We regret to inform you that an offensive photo was included in this year’s school yearbook,” Melanie Meidel, the interim principal, wrote in Friday’s email. “One of our top priorities is the well-being and respect of our students, staff and community. Regrettably, we have become aware that the yearbook was printed with a photo containing text that is considered antisemitic.”

The school immediately halted distribution of the yearbook once it became aware of the photo, Meidel wrote. She said the page with the photo would be removed, but it was unclear from Johnson’s statement if that was still the plan. Johnson did say students could request a refund for their yearbook.

More than 1,500 people signed a petition opposing the decision to remove the photo.

Three students spoke out at Monday’s U-46 school board meeting saying there was no malicious intent to the photographed posters.

“Palestine, whether it is Gaza or the West Bank, is between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea,” Ryhah Rizvi, a senior at Bartlett High School, told school board meeting. “To consider that phrase offensive is to deny the Palestinians’ very existence on that land and that is true discrimination.”

However, for many supporters of Israel, the phrase is seen as a call to wipe out the Jewish state.

“It is the creation of a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea … territory that includes the state of Israel, which would mean demolishing or getting rid of the state of Israel,” said David Goldenberg, Midwest regional director for the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s an antisemitic charge that denies the Jewish right to self determination including the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland.”

Others deny that and describe the phrase as a call for freedom and taking a stance against Zionism.

“It has nothing to do with anything that’s antisemitic unless one believes that apartheid and oppression is a Jewish trait,” said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations in Chicago.

On social media, many have criticized the decision to halt yearbook distribution, with one student pointing out the irony that the photo in question was taken at a multicultural fair celebrating the student population’s diversity.

“I find it devastating that the institution (that) promises to uphold values, education and the freedom of thought has titled celebrating an entire culture at a multicultural festival antisemitic and therefore not fit for this year’s yearbook,” Rizvi told school board members Monday.

She added that sending the email without talking to students in the photo first, “led to a complete misinterpretation of the photo’s text” and caused a “disruption” of the trust between students and staff.

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