On May 20, 2021 during a monthly Clifton, NJ school board Zoom meeting where topics such as social distancing and lunch pricing were discussed, Clifton Board of Education commissioners Feras Awwad and Fahim Abedrabbo used their platforms to engage in vitriolic speech against Israel. A war in Gaza had broken out 10 days before, and Jewish people were being violently assaulted in cities around the world.
Awwad began his tirade by stating that Israel is being funded with U.S. taxpayer money to “oppress” Palestinian people. He called Gaza “the biggest open-air prison,” and accused the Israeli military of “controlling the water – the Mediterranean, pointing missiles at them, building apartheid style walls…giving them such short notice to leave their homes before they get bombed…” He emphasized, “Colonialism will never win, apartheid will disappear, as it did in South Africa.”
Lana Melman, CEO of Liberate Art, an organization that combats the cultural boycott against Israel, and author of Artists Under Fire: The BDS War against Celebrities, Jews, and Israel, noted striking similarities between Awwad’s talking points and those of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. These similarities, she explained, “include false charges of Israeli apartheid and colonialism. BDS supporters highlight the erroneous charge of Israeli apartheid to members of the Black and people-of-color communities, believing it resonates with them.” Melman thinks this attempt at merging distinctly different histories and present day challenges is “pandering.”
While wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, Awwad blamed the death of George Floyd on the IDF. “Many police forces within our country actually go overseas to Israel to learn and to be taught abusive tactics,” he said. “When George Floyd, may he rest in peace, died because an officer decided to put a knee to his neck and suffocate him, that is an Israeli tactic.” He ended by stating “Free Palestine, Black Lives Matter.”
Melman points out that outspoken BDS advocate Roger Waters, cofounder of the band Pink Floyd, spread the same conspiracy theory implicating the IDF in the death of Floyd, a statement which he later admitted was false on his website. The BDS movement was created by five major Palestinian terrorist organizations. 35 states have anti-BDS laws, including New Jersey.
When Abedrabbo spoke at the meeting, he said he was going to “reciprocate Mr. Awwad’s sentiments” and that his prayers “are with people across the world, particularly in the Middle East; for all people to be treated equal, without duress and occupation.” He added, “Children should be able to attend schools without worrying whether their homes will be destroyed or their neighborhoods being ethnically cleansed by groups of people… Children should be taught the truths of the world, and not one-sided history.” He described being detained, strip searched and having a gun pointed at him while visiting relatives in Palestine.
A subsequent school board meeting was held on August 5, where Awwad insisted that he “loves Judaism” and Abedrabbo maintained that antisemitism should not be “shrugged off, nor should the word be thrown around to negate a viewpoint.”
On September 15, 2021, Elisabeth Schwartz , former elected official of the Englewood Board of Education, filed a complaint with the New Jersey School Ethics Commission regarding Abedrabbo and Awwad’s anti-Israel rhetoric, which, according to her research, violates the New Jersey School Ethics Act. After the Commission dismissed her complaint without a hearing, Schwartz appealed. She is represented in the appeal by Susan Tuchman, Director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice, and Jeffrey Schreiber, a member of the firm of Meister Seelig & Fein LLP.
Two months prior to dismissing Schwartz’s case, this same ethics commission held Toms River, New Jersey board of Education member, Daniel Leonard, to a completely different standard for posting what they considered to be “anti-Muslim” content on social media. “What a dramatic difference in the way the Commission responded to our case as compared to the Leonard case,” Tuchman explained, “In our case, the Commission simply dismissed the complaint. It didn’t even hold a hearing to determine whether the board members violated the law and should be punished for using their official podiums to deliver what the Commission recognized were speeches hurtful and offensive to the Jewish community, having nothing to do with board business.” However, when Leonard posted comments deemed offensive to Muslims on his personal, private Facebook page, “the Commission concluded that he violated the law and should be censured, even though he was no longer even a board member,” Tuchman observed.
It should be noted that in a May 12, 2021 Facebook post, Awwad called Israel a “terroristic state.”
Schwartz’s appeal is pending before the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division. As of August 8, all filings have been completed and she is waiting for the Appellate Division to schedule a hearing on the appeal.
Gerard Filitti, Senior Counsel at The Lawfare Project, filed an amicus brief supporting Schwartz’s appeal. He explained that Awwad and Abedrabbo “violated the NJ School Ethics Act by launching into a diatribe against Israel, creating a justifiable impression among the public that neither they nor the Clifton School Board can be entrusted to uphold the civil rights of Israeli-Americans, prevent illegal national origin discrimination, or uphold the civil rights of the Jewish community.” He added, “Shamefully, they did this at a time, last year, when thousands of rockets were being launched by a Palestinian terrorist group targeting the civilian population of Israel.”
In an amicus brief, The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) defended Awwad and Abedrabbo’s comments as “free speech” that is “blatantly not antisemitic…Not once in their statements did Respondent’s mention the Jewish people or the Jewish faith.” According to the NGO Honest Reporting, the ADC is an “active participant” in the BDS movement. Awwad, Abedrabbo and ADC did not respond to The Jewish Press’s requests for comments.
Regarding what determines antisemitism, Rabbi Cooper, the associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated, “In 2022 we gauge when legitimate criticisms of Israel crosses into antisemitism by the three Ds: Double Standard, Delegitimization, Demonization. Anti-semitic, anti-peace, anti-reconciliation BDS checks all three boxes… BDS was never designed to help Palestinians, only to hurt Israel, home to the world’s largest Jewish community. Whomever validates and promotes Israel equals apartheid and BDS, whatever his/her nationality or religion, is guilty of validating and promoting antisemitism.”
Lori Lowenthal Marcus, Legal Director of the Deborah Project, who also filed an amicus brief in support of Schwartz, asserted that Israel cannot be separated from Judaism. “The belief that Zion, i.e. Israel, is the homeland of the Jewish people who have the right to sovereignty there, is foundational in Judaism. It is expressed throughout the Jewish canonical texts including the Hebrew Bible, the Mishna, and the Talmud. It is a central feature of most Jewish holidays and of the Jewish calendar; it is recited in the three daily prayers uttered by observant Jews.” She asked, “Who are these defendants to both decide what Judaism is and what antisemitism is? They have cloaked themselves with a cowardly excuse and should not cheapen the First Amendment by claiming it isn’t discriminatory to vilify Israel.”
Reverberations from the verbal attacks Awwad and Abedrabbo made against Israel were felt by members of the Jewish community who believe their statements are “dangerous” and “untruthful.”
Steve Goldberg, whose daughter had attended the Clifton schools, stood up at the August 5th in-person school board meeting and inquired, “Am I even welcome here? I mean, I’m Jewish, so should I even be here? Do I have to denounce my homeland to be here? That’s what you’re asking me to do. Who else are you asking to do that? What other religion? What other race are you setting that up with? None. Only the Jews. That’s why it’s antisemitism.” Noting the lack of response from board members after Awwad and Abedrabbo’s comments, he stated, “I have no problem with free speech…I have more problem with the silence when someone says something like, ‘Israel is responsible for the killing of George Floyd.’ That is an antisemitic trope, plain and simple.”
Rabbi Robert Mark of the Clifton Jewish Center, who is the city’s police chaplain, told The Jewish Press that Awwad and Abedrabbo have been making hate-filled remarks like this for a long time, since before the May 20th meeting. Rabbi Mark said that when he showed them death threats his congregant’s sixth grade daughter received from a classmate saying he would “go to” her if he had a gun, “They didn’t think it was so terrible. They thought it was just fine…no big deal.” He stated, “They had no problem with a Muslim boy threatening the life of this Jewish girl.”
On July 26, a Jewish man, Fima Zlatsin, was viciously punched in a NYC subway, leaving him covered in blood and requiring stitches. His attacker called him a Jew and told him, “If I had a gun I would shoot you.”
Rabbi Mark confirmed to The Jewish Press that at the August 5th meeting, Abedrabbo called him an “Islamophobe” when Abedrabbo stated, “for you to say that a Muslim student wanting to hurt someone is reprehensible. While that may be an isolated event, that is one person, that is one incident that does not represent Muslims. Guess what, that’s Islamophobe. That’s Islamophobe. I didn’t mention a religion, you did, Great Rabbi.”
Abedrabbo did not mention the reprehensible nature of this student’s texts, two of which stated, “JEWISH PEOPLE MAKE ME THIS [expletive deleted] ANGRY!” “If I could, I would [expletive deleted] kill a Jew.”
Tuchman commented, “Abedrabbo referring to Rabbi Mark as ‘the great rabbi’ is derisive and disrespectful. Instead of responding with deep concern that a Muslim student has expressed such hatred for the Jewish people, Abedrabbo immediately responds with a baseless accusation. Why is it Islamophobic to call out Muslim antisemitism?”
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, cofounder and director of AMCHA, an initiative dedicated to researching and combatting antisemitism at U.S. schools, voiced her concern about Abedrabbo being head of the board’s Diversity and Equity Committee and Awwad on the education subcommittee. A new NJ law mandates diversity and inclusion instruction for kindergarten through twelfth grade.
She acknowledged that there is a “very real possibility that their unapologetically anti-Zionist perspectives will affect decisions the board makes regarding curriculum adoption or teacher training.” An example she gives is how, in California, there are school boards working with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute (ESMC), which she describes as “well-known for peddling curricular materials and professional development services that offer antisemitic portrayals of Jews and the Jewish state and encourage activism to harm them, including BDS.”
In Rossman-Benjamin’s experience, “Often it’s only one or two politically motivated school board members who are able to convince their fellow board members to adopt an antisemitic curriculum.”
The StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department also filed an amicus brief in support of Schwartz’s appeal. Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, stated, “The State of New Jersey has an obligation to ensure that members of local school boards lawfully and ethically use their platform to create an unbiased educational environment for all students in their district…We hope that the Appellate Division will restore justice to Elisabeth Schwartz and the broader Jewish and Israeli American constituency in New Jersey by overturning the prior decision and giving this case the proper ethical review it deserves.”
As of September 6, the court said it will consider the amicus briefs filed by StandWithUs, The Lawfare Project and The Deborah Project, all of which support Schwartz’s claims. The amicus brief from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee will also be considered. Filitti explained how the court’s consideration of these briefs is “a step in the right direction,” and that this violation of public trust “requires consequences from the court, without which Jew-hatred will continue to fester in Clifton’s schools.”