The “outrageous” decision by the New Jersey School Ethics Commission to decline to hear a complaint filed against two Palestinian-American commissioners on the Clifton Board of Education over anti-Israel statements made at a board meeting is being appealed.
The appeal is being led by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and is being handled pro bono by Jeffrey Schreiber, a partner in the East Brunswick office of the law firm of Meister Seelig & Fein at the organization’s request. Many members of the Jewish community believe the statements crossed the line into antisemitism.
“For the ethics commission to dismiss this without holding a hearing is outrageous, especially when they’ve acted against others in much less obvious situations,” Schreiber told The Jewish Link in a phone conversation. “We seem to be living in a world where anything said about anyone is verboten except when it’s said about Jews. Then no one does a thing. I have a problem with that.” He cited a case in which a school board member had been censured for posting private offensive anti-Muslim remarks on a private Facebook page.
The commission had received lengthy certifications and legal briefs submitted by the two commissioners, Ferris Awaad and Fahim K. Abedrabbo, and their attorney, as well as the response to those filings by the complainant, Elisabeth Schwartz.
In those documents the two sides clashed repeatedly over interpretations of state law and board policy. Schwartz, a former Englewood Board of Education member, had her complaint against Awaad and Abedrabbo dismissed on January 25 by the commission, part of the state Department of Education.
Members of the Jewish community had dubbed the commissioners’ statements as “dangerous” and “untruthful” and their accusations against Israel of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, and comparing its treatment of Palestinians to the killing of George Floyd as antisemitic. The statements made at the May 20, 2021 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.
Schwartz also said Awaad’s closing statement at the board meeting, “Free Palestine. Free my people,” which is linked to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign against Israel, is “intensely antisemitic and anti-Israel.”
“Our position in this case is that the two school board members violated their ethical obligations under the School Ethics Act at a school board meeting to promote their own partisan political positions that have nothing to do with the schools and the children they are educating,” said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice.
She said that the remarks made by the commissioners promoted “gratuitous falsehoods about Israel that were particularly egregious at a time when antisemitism is surging in this country and around the world.”
Tuchman noted that many anti-Israel issues “crossed the line into antisemitism,” prompting a letter from the ZOA to the school board. While school board members are free to speak about various subjects at meetings, Awaad’s and Abedrabbo’s remarks were “filled with lies” and antisemitism that violated the public’s trust.
“That is exactly what the School Ethics Act is supposed to prevent,” Tuchman said. “A member of the public would have been shut down if they had made a speech like the school board members. Not only that, it created a situation where Israeli people and their families and Jewish students and their families in the community feel uncomfortable. It was a complete violation of the public trust.”
Stephen R. Fogarty, the Fair Lawn attorney representing Awaad and Abedrabbo on behalf of the Board, did not return calls but he and both commissioners stated in response to Schwartz’s filing that nothing in their comments was antisemitic or criticized Judaism.
Fogarty wrote there was no “factual evidence” the commissioners “took deliberate action which resulted in undermining, opposing, compromising or harming school personnel in the proper performance of their duties” in violation of state law.
He stated that board regulations and policies contain no limitations on what a commissioner can offer his or her opinion about and cited a provision stating, “Board members are entitled to express themselves publicly on any matter including issues involving the board and school district,” as long as they state, “that the opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Board.”
Schreiber contended the matter wasn’t a First Amendment issue, and while ethics rules allow for personal opinions to be expressed by board members, “you do not get to use your position on the school board for your personal pet political projects, especially when they contain something as odious as antisemitism.”
He said no court date has yet been set, but cases such as this typically have a time frame of a year.
“How these people [ethics commission] can sit in good conscience and not say something about this, when they do not even hold a hearing, and allow school board members to spew this antisemitism and do nothing,” said Schreiber, “… is why my firm’s partners said to go ahead with this.”
By Debra Rubin