Members of the Jewish community have dubbed statements sharply criticizing Israel made by two Clifton Board of Education commissioners as “dangerous” and “untruthful,” and fear they will fuel hostility directed at Jewish students.
The remarks were initially made during a May 20 Zoom board meeting by commissioners Feras Awwad and Fahim K. Abedrabbo, who identified themselves as Palestinian-Americans.
Awwad said at that meeting that American police forces are regularly sent to Israel “to learn and be taught abusive tactics that are brought back to the urban communities. When George Floyd died it was because a police officer decided to put a knee to his neck. He knew to put a knee to his neck and suffocate him. That is an Israeli tactic used on Palestinian people being suffocated to death.”
Abedrabbo spoke of the atrocities occurring all over the world, particularly in the Middle East, and said children should be able to attend school without worrying whether their homes will be destroyed “or their neighborhoods ethnically cleansed” and said he had been humiliated by being detained and strip-searched and having guns pointed at him while visiting relatives.
Awwad said while he wished for peace for both sides, “in my parents’ homeland of Palestine there is a humanitarian issue and many families have been murdered in an uncontrollable crisis.
“It’s unfortunate a country over there is being funded with $40 billion of U.S. tax dollars to oppress the Palestinian people,” he said. “Gaza is the most densely populated place in the world and the biggest open air prison with Israel controlling the water—the Mediterranean—pointing missiles at them, the military building apartheid-style walls, trapping them, controlling every movement.”
Awwad called on national and state leaders to make a statement, adding, “We should all be living in peace. Hatred will never win. Colonialism will never win. Apartheid will disappear as it did in South Africa. I want to close my statement with ‘Free Palestine. Free my people.’”
After the comments board attorney Derlys Gutierrez asked both commissioners “to make it clear these are your own comments” and not the board’s.
The remarks triggered a significant response from both sides resulting in a two-and-a-half-hour public comment session at the Aug. 5 meeting, the overwhelming majority of which was devoted to commentary on the Middle East. The in-person session was viewed virtually by The Jewish Link from the board’s website.
At that meeting Board President Jim Smith read a statement that said: “The board bears no responsibility for comments made by the public on issues” and asked that everyone remain courteous “and mindful of the rights of others.”
At the end of the meeting both commissioners elaborated on their original statements. Awwad said, “To my brothers and sisters from Clifton and throughout the state who came out I just want to say loud and clear I love Judaism,” and added he had studied both the Jewish and Christian Bible. He said he never intended his remarks to be viewed as hateful to Jews.
Abedrabbo cautioned that “antisemitism should not be taken lightly and I consider every religion to be equal.”
“Antisemitism should not be shrugged off nor should the word be thrown around to make a viewpoint,” he said. “The state of Palestine has nothing to do with the Jewish faith. The Holy Land belongs to all Abrahamic religions, which are all peaceful religions.”
A letter obtained by The Jewish Link sent by the Clifton Jewish Community Council to the Orthodox community after the first meeting stated: “We are shocked to learn that at a recent regularly scheduled Clifton Board of Education meeting an elected commissioner decided to voice his antisemitic rhetoric by referencing apartheid, ethnic cleansing and compared justified defense to the killing of George Floyd.”
The letter said the council had been in touch with Jewish community leaders on the state and national level and was told community response is critical in such situations.
“Unfortunately, not a single member of the BOE has condemned the comments,” stated the letter. “Statements like these have become too common in our city and the propaganda against our community is real.”
Yet, no Orthodox residents showed on Aug. 5 to offer a response, a development that surprised and disappointed Rabbi Robert Mark of the Clifton Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, who expected the council letter to impel the Orthodox community to react “vigorously and strongly.”
In fact, it was a member of Rabbi Mark’s synagogue, Howard Cohn of New Milford, who alerted The Jewish Link about the situation. Cohn also wrote a letter to the board, noting what he said were untruths and expressing outrage that the matter was brought up at a board meeting. Reading it aloud on Aug. 5, he listed the “dog whistles” of apartheid, children being killed and colonialism mentioned at the first meeting.
However, in a phone conversation, Ari Gross, a Clifton resident and president of Adas Israel, an Orthodox synagogue located in neighboring Passaic, called the May 5 board meeting “pretty shocking” and said perhaps the time had come for the Orthodox community to refocus from just municipal elections to include the school board.
“It’s hard to convince frum people of the importance of getting involved with or running for the school board when their children go to yeshiva,” he said. “But now that we have this issue where a generation of kids could become anti-Israel and now that it’s more public we may get a bigger response.”
Gross said he wasn’t sure whether turning out to board meetings in large numbers was the most effective way for the community to react. But he thought the shuls should be making members aware of any local antisemitism and continuing to urge people to vote, because “our complaints will not be taken seriously if we don’t vote.”
Michael Cohen, eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote in a statement to The Jewish Link that: “The fact that such an antisemitic diatribe can be heard by an elected body in open session and not be condemned by any of the body’s members is in fact outrageous and unacceptable. Members of the Jewish community have the right to expect that the members of the Clifton Board of Education would respond directly and immediately to the cascade of antisemitic and anti-Israel tropes from one of their own. The lies extend from falsely accusing Israel to be an apartheid state, blaming Israel instead of Hamas for the miseries of the people of Gaza and falsely accusing Israeli experts of teaching law enforcement officials from the United States [to use] inhumane unethical and illegal tactics in their police work.”
Steve Goldberg, whose daughter went through the Clifton school system, asked the board, “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 because that’s what you’re asking me to do? Who else are you asking to do that? None, only the Jews and that’s why it’s antisemitism.”
Rabbi Mark, who is the city’s police chaplain, told the board, “I am here to condemn in the first place matters about Israel or what they call Palestine or whatever that have no business at a board of education meeting. It doesn’t impact the children.”
He said when such hatred is brought up it generates additional hatred and noted the sixth grade daughter of one of his congregants received disturbing online messages from a classmate believed to be Muslim who threatened to kill her because he hated Jews. Rabbi Mark provided The Jewish Link with a screen shot of the messages given to him by the girl’s mother.
Rabbi Mark said of Israel, “There are Arab judges, Muslims judges. There are policemen, soldiers, a supreme court justice, doctors, engineers and so on. Is that an apartheid state? I don’t think so.”
He requested the board censure the two commissioners, but Smith told him only the School Ethics Commission of the state Department of Education has the power to sanction a school board member.
Smith then read a statement: “Please be informed any board commissioner has the same right to free speech as any other citizen of this country as long as they are speaking as individuals and not on behalf of the board…The board of education does not take any political position on any topic.”
The public comments saw speakers refer to Israel as “a so-called democracy,” accuse it of not allowing Arabs to drive on certain roads, and someone complained any criticism of Israel is now viewed as being antisemitic.
Two members of Jewish Voice for Peace, which is described by the Anti-Defamation League as “a radical anti-Israel activist group that advocates for a complete economic, cultural and academic boycott of the State of Israel,” also spoke, including a woman named Tova from West Orange who said all four of her grandparents had been killed in the Holocaust and she had been born in Israel, which her parents left when she was 2. She has since renounced her Israeli citizenship and accused Israel of colonialism and apartheid, adding, “Don’t ever say what is happening in Israel is for the defense of Jews because it is not.”
Two rabbis from the notoriously anti-Zionist Nuturei Karta fringe chasidic sect, who believe Jews can only be restored to Israel after God brings about the Messiah, also lashed out at Israel.
One of them, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, who is considered its North American spokesperson, has regularly appeared in the Arab press claiming, “Zionists have blood on their hands.” The group has been denounced by the vast majority of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Weiss claimed at the meeting that prior to the establishment of Israel Jews and Arab Muslims lived in peace and harmony throughout the Middle East.
“What is Zionism?” he asked. “The state of Israel is a transformation from Judaism as a religion to a [nationality],” he said.
Rabbi Mark said he had angrily spoken to Rabbi Weiss and recited the section of the Amidah asking that those who seek to harm and malign the Jewish people be humbled.
“I quoted the siddur because I wanted him to know what I think he is and how he is the kind of Jew who destroys the unity and the ability of the Jewish people to survive,” Rabbi Mark told The Jewish Link, adding, “Then in Yiddish I told him he should rot.”