A large crowd came out to speak and share their experiences at the Oct. 17 Cherry Hill Public Schools’ Board of Education meeting.
In the week prior, “a video of a heated exchange between students at Cherry Hill East was widely released” according to a letter sent by the district. In addition to that incident, there were also videos and images of Cherry Hill East students holding Palestinian flags that had been circulated on social media and sparked backlash throughout the community.
In response, student leaders at East came together to encourage unity among the students through a video where they reiterated that “Hate has no home here.” These included Nour Raja, Emily Mashman, Gulmira Yesliyurt, Kyle Lehrfeld, Minhaz Rajib, Usra Aslam, Affan Rahman, Asher Boiskin, Mason Rosenbaum, Lindsay Krieger and Maya Mazahreh.
Students from the Jewish Student Union, Muslim Student Association and Middle Eastern North African Association at East also came together to put out a statement on Thursday, Oct. 12 where they apologized to those who felt uncomfortable coming to school and urged all students to “consider the power and responsibility of their actions.”
“Let’s be sources of support, respect and empathy,” the students wrote. “When you see someone struggling, reach out, offer a listening ear and extend a hand of friendship. By building a culture of kindness and understanding, we can foster an environment in which everyone feels safe, valued and respected.
“It’s through our actions that we can make a difference in our community.”
The student leaders also put out a video to encourage their fellow classmates, called “Hate Has No Home Here,” on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t9VvolPdAuQ.
A Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam were brought in to speak with East students following the incidents.
The format of the meeting had been altered out of respect for the speakers in attendance, so the public could comment on any topic before the meeting began. Yanell Joseph, student advocate for Cherry Hill East, gave an overview of what the student leaders had accomplished in the previous week and encouraged speakers to be respectful.
“Under Dr. Perry’s (Cherry Hill East’s principal) leadership we are allowed to learn and discuss about other cultures, race, ethnicities and experiences that we may not have,” said Joseph. ” … These students are creating a culture of respect and awareness at East.”
Joseph noted that the school had already previously been working on a school-wide campaign to create a community where all students are respected, seen, heard and comforted. To remain respectful, no students or organizations were to be named or singled out directly in public comments.
Board of education members and acting superintendent Dr. Kwame Morton also gave comments condemning the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7 in Israel and all kinds of hatred, including antisemitism and Islamophobia.
During the public comment portion, many voiced their dismay with the messages from the district that were sent out. They called for a stronger stance to be taken in the future, one that outright condemns the violence or attacks being done and one that does not take any side. The Oct. 8 letter from Morton as well as its follow up letter on Oct. 9 and Oct. 12 emphasized the resources available for students in need of support.
Both Jewish and Muslim students shared they experienced hateful acts towards them in the past week. For some Muslim students, it was not just from other students but also from parents in the community.
Mirjana Mutan, a student at Cherry Hill East, shared that another student called her a “terrorist sympathizer” and allegedly uploaded a photo of her holding a Palestinian flag and wearing keffiyah (headdress).
She recounted how parents had jeered at her and her friend wearing keffiyehs.
“The parents started pointing at us and shouting, they were even recording us,” Mutan said.
Later, when her mom came to sign her out for early dismissal, she also noted that “students were waving the Israeli flag at my mother as parents cheered them on.”
“My mom was not showing support for Palestine in any way, she was just wearing her hijab and they automatically thought it was okay to do that,” she said.
Jewish and Palestinian students both reported similar feelings and experiences, as the flag of one country or another reminds them of the pain that their people have suffered, both on Oct. 7 and historically.
In response to one Jewish student’s comments that equated students wearing keffiyehs as being in support of terrorism and Hamas, Muslim parent Shumaila Shaikh explained that this is not necessarily the case.
“We all condemn the terrorist attacks, but people who wear the keffiyeh were supporting Palestinians who were everyday Palestinians who were in the crossfires of all this violence,” Shaikh said. “I think we can all agree, killing on this mass scale of any kind is intolerable and it’s inhumane, and people unfortunately every day are caught in the middle of it.
“I think that is the opportunity here to educate our high schoolers, our middle schoolers, if you have the right to wear a yarmulke, the other person has the right to wear hijab, or the other person has the right to wear supporting his country men who are also living in a warzone themselves.”
During student representatives’ remarks, Gia Gupta for Cherry Hill East called for solving underlying issues, as she had heard students call each other things like “terrorist” or other slurs two years earlier when she released a story with two co-editors about discrimination at East.
“If you don’t solve the underlying issues that have been deeply rooted for years, … nothing will ever change,” said Gupta.
The full meeting is available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=av711Np6xlM.