A complaint has been filed with the New Jersey School Ethics Commission against two Palestinian-American commissioners of the Clifton Board of Education over statements they made criticizing Israel that are believed to be violations of the code of ethics governing school boards.
The statements made at the May 20 meeting sparked two-and-a-half hours of heated public comment largely on the Middle East situation at the August 5 meeting by members of the public on both sides of the matter.
Elisabeth Schwartz, a former member of the Englewood Board of Education, said after she read the article about the meetings in The Jewish Link she immediately knew that Feras Awwad and Fahim K. Abedrabbo had violated a provision of the code of ethics. It states: “I will confine my board action to policy making, planning and appraisal, and I will help to frame policies and plans only after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them.”
Members of the Jewish community dubbed the statements as “dangerous” and “untruthful” and the commissioners’ accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and comparing its treatments of Palestinians to the klling of George Floyd as antisemitic. They voiced concerns that these sentiments could be turned against Jewish students.
According to Schwartz, they appeared to violate another provision of the ethics code as well, which states, “I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex or social standing.”
“I read that article and thought, ‘This is unbelievable’,” Schwartz told The Jewish Link in a phone interview. “No way should that be allowed at a board of education. They have to comply with those ethics and stick only to matters of board policy. I was surprised the board let them continue and I’m surprised no one else filed a complaint.”
After the comments, board attorney Derlys Gutierrez had asked both commissioners “to make it clear these are your own comments” and not the board’s.
Board President Jim Smith also read a statement at the August meeting stating, “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.”
However, Schwartz said case law has placed limits on the First Amendment rights of free speech of school board members, who are “not allowed to promote a personal political message.” She provided a list of court decisions backing that assertion.
Both commissioners claimed at the meeting they were not antisemitic and their comments had nothing to do with Judaism or the Jewish people.
Schwartz said she is seeking to have Awwad and Abedrabbo removed from the board by the commission, which is part of the state department of education.
Schwartz said she was told in a phone call with the district’s business administrator, Michael Ucci, that the matter had been turned over to its insurance company, which had hired an outside attorney to represent the commissioners. Ucci did not return calls to The Jewish Link. Awwad and Abedrabbo did not respond to emails requesting comment.
“I think they know they are in trouble,” said Schwartz. “Their remarks have nothing to do with their responsibilities. Their statements negatively impacted the running of the school district. You cannot say anything that relates to race, religion or ethnicity. You cannot promote a personal agenda.”
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 about whether their homes will be destroyed “or their neighborhoods being ethnically cleansed,” and said he had been humiliated by being detained and strip-searched and having guns pointed at him by Israeli authorities while visiting relatives.
Awwad closed his statement with, ”Free Palestine. Free my people.”
Schwartz also said she took exception to those references and others that are tied to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which is considered antisemitic and has been condemned by New Jersey and others states as well as Congress. State law forbids the state from doing business with entities subscribing to BDS.
Michael Cohen, eastern director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, had said after the meetings, “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.”
A letter obtained by The Jewish Link from the Clifton Jewish Community Council also expressed shock over the commissioners’ antisemitic comments and that no other commission member had condemned them.
Rabbi Robert Mark of the Clifton Jewish Community Center and the city’s police chaplain had engaged forcefully at the August meeting with the two commissioners and members of the public supporting them. He told The Jewish Link he had been unaware of Schwartz’s complaint, but applauded her action.