April 18, 2024
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Dismissal of Charges Against Westfield Board of Education Member Appealed

The decision by the state School Ethics Commission (SEC) to dismiss charges against the first Arab and Muslim member of the Westfield Board of Education over her allegedly antisemitic social media posts is being appealed.

The complaint cited Sahar Aziz’s anti-Israel views, including that she had signed a public manifesto that characterized Israel as “apartheid” and refers to the “racial supremacy of Jewish-Zionist nationals.”

The Appellate Court filing was made by the Deborah Project, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Merion Station, Pennsylvania dedicated to protecting Jewish civil rights in the American educational system since 2016. It was made on behalf of local resident Stephanie Siegel, who charged Aziz compromised the board by taking private action, thus undermining public confidence, and that Aziz’s posts could lead to bias and threats against Jewish members of the school district.

The commission, which voted Dec. 19, 2023 to formalize the dismissal, acknowledged the statements were “controversial and likely to be perceived as offensive and hurtful to members of the district’s Jewish community as well as the Jewish community as a whole,” but they didn’t violate ethics rules because they didn’t relate to the school district. It also noted the posts were made on a private social media account and didn’t reference the district.

However, Deborah Project legal director Lori Lowenthal Marcus said in the appeal filed Jan. 16 that Aziz, by signing the “Palestine & Praxis” document and making social media posts “spewing hatred against ‘Jewish-Zionists,’’’ violated state law regarding conduct by board members.

Lowenthal Marcus had said that Siegel, a Zionist, her children and others who share her views were implicated as “racists” and felt attacked by Aziz.

Aziz is a distinguished professor of law, the Chancellor’s Social Justice Scholar at Rutgers Law School, and director of the Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights, which engages in “research, education, and advocacy on law and policy that adversely impact the civil and human rights of America’s diverse Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities,” according to its website. The center has recently come under fire from the Jewish community for sponsoring programs spotlighting “the settler-colonization of Palestine” and others related to the West Bank and Gaza.

Lowenthal Marcus said the appeal also cited other areas where the SEC made other questionable interpretations of state law, including a “misreading” of a case by the commission in which the censure of a Toms River board member for his posts targeting he Muslim community and others was upheld by the commissioner of education. Aziz’s actions make the Israeli and Jewish communities targets of discrimination, argued Lowenthal Marcus.

She said she also believed the SEC made a mistake by concluding that Azis’s posts don’t relate to board business “when those comments directly addressed … the content of curriculum in the classroom and the bias to be tolerated in educators.”

Moreover, the commission should have followed the guidance of a 1986 ruling “that government has the right and need to ensure its officials act in a way that does not interfere with the government’s ability to provide the services it is supposed to deliver, even if that requires limiting their speech rights.”

Lowenthal Marcus said the SEC’s conclusion that Aziz’s “offensive and distasteful” comments criticizing Israel’s existence and policies “do not qualify as private action that may compromise the board” erred based on the ruling.

At a volatile board meeting last year where audience members both sharply criticized and defended her, Aziz said she had been repeatedly subjected to Islamophobia during her tenure on the board and denied she was antisemitic.

Lowenthal Marcus has noted in September 2021 the Westfield council adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. IHRA is a non-legally binding resolution adopted by 31 member countries, including the U.S., stating that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and cites several examples, including the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”


Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University.

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