April 13, 2024
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Appeal Filed Over Complaint Against Palestinian Clifton BOE Members

An appeal has been filed seeking to overturn a state School Ethics Commission decision not to hear a complaint charging two Palestinian-American members of the Clifton Board of Education who chose to “hijack” a board meeting to spread “misleading” statements and “lies” about Israel.

“Standing on their board-provided soapboxes, they attacked Israel publicly, with misleading statements and outright lies that crossed the line into antisemitism,” read the brief filed May 23 with the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court.

The brief, obtained by The Jewish Link, was filed pro bono by Jeffrey Schreiber, a partner in the East Brunswick office of the law firm of Meister Seelig & Fein, and Susan Tuchman, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice. The complaint to the ethics commission, part of the state Department of Education, was made by Elisabeth Schwartz, a former member of the Englewood Board of Education.

Tuchman and Schreiber described the commission’s decision as “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.”

An objection to Tuchman, who is a member of the bar in New York and Massachusetts, joining as co-counsel had been filed by Stephen R. Fogarty and Rodney T. Hara, the Fair Lawn attorneys representing Ferris Awaad and Fahim K. Abedrabbo, Palestinian-American commissioners who made the objectionable comments. However, Appellate Court Judge Clarkson S. Fisher Jr. on April 11 approved the pro hac vice request, a special one-time admission to practice in New Jersey, for Tuchman to be part of the legal team.

In their brief, Schreiber and Tuchman noted the statements were made by Awaad and Abedrabbo during Israel’s conflict with Hamas—which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States—over the thousands of rockets launched into Israel resulting in the murder of Israeli civilians and at a time of surging antisemitism.

The statements made at the May 20, 2021 virtual meeting sparked two-and-a-half hours of heated public comment, largely on the Middle East situation, at the August 5, 2021 meeting by members of the public on both sides of the matter.

Although the state commission recognized that Abedrabbo’s and Awaad’s comments at the board meeting were “offensive” and “hurtful to members of the district’s Jewish community,” the commission dismissed the complaint.

“That summary dismissal is completely and inexplicably inconsistent with the commission’s decisions in other similar cases,” noted the brief. It cited an instance occurring just before the Clifton case where a school board member had been censured for posting offensive anti-Muslim remarks on a private Facebook page.

“The commission understood and indeed emphasized the impact that the school board member’s comments might have on Muslim students and their families,” stated the brief, adding that the same logic should have been used in the Clifton case.

The commissioners’ remarks were even more egregious in the Clifton case because they were made publicly using their “official positions to single out and demonize Israel and deny Israel’s very right to exist.”

Moreover, no one on the board challenged their positions even though members of the public would have been prevented from doing so by district policy.

“Indeed, as Ms. Schwartz would have shown, had the commission denied the motion to dismiss and allowed this case to proceed to a hearing, their comments were antisemitic, according to an internationally accepted definition of antisemitism,” read the brief.

Among the assertions made by Awaad cited are: that $40 billion of American taxpayer money is being used to “oppress” the Palestinian people; that Israel is building “apartheid-style” walls in Gaza and basically keeping Palestinians “locked up in a prison”; that Israel a colonialist and apartheid state; that U.S. police forces “actually go overseas to Israel to learn and to be taught abusive tactics that is [sic] brought back to the urban communities”; and he claimed Minneapolis police used a learned Israeli tactic to kill George Floyd.

Abedrabbo accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and “occupation” and claimed he had been “detained” and “strip-searched” and forced to “look down the barrel of a gun” by Israeli forces while visiting relatives.

While he offered his prayers for the children of the West Bank and Gaza, the brief pointed out “tellingly he did not pray for the innocent children in Israel who were being deliberately targeted for murder by Hamas in Gaza.”

Tuchman and Schreiber noted that at the May 2021 meeting no other board members questioned their fellow members’ conduct, although the board attorney asked Awaad and Abedrabbo to state that their opinions were personal and not the board’s.

“No one criticized them, although Awaad’s and Abedrabbo’s statements potentially compromised the public’s trust in the board and did, in fact, cause members of the Jewish community to lose confidence in the board,” it was noted.

To back up that statement the brief pointed out after the May meeting the Clifton Jewish Community Council sent a letter to the Orthodox community expressing its shock over the unchallenged allegations.

At the August meeting, a resident asked, “Am I even welcome here? I mean I’m Jewish so should I even be here?”

Clifton’s police chaplain, who is a rabbi, also criticized the remarks, which he said had no place at a board meeting and no impact on children’s education but could breed hate toward Jews.

Schreiber and Tuchman stressed the “board’s silence and inaction in the present case actually served to amplify the negative message that Jewish students and their families had already received from Abedrabbo and Awaad—namely, that their Jewish identity might adversely affect the board’s decision-making, and that they should thus think twice before ever going to the board for help or redress.”

By Debra Rubin

 

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