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More Legal Briefs Filed in Battle Over Clifton BOE Members’ Israel Remarks

The ongoing legal battle over whether remarks criticizing Israel by two Palestinian-American commissioners on the Clifton board of education, which have been deemed antisemitic by Jewish groups and a racial attack being wielded by Jewish advocacy groups to quash criticism of Israel by an Arab civil rights group, is now being sorted out by the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court.

The legal proceedings have recently become more complex as several advocacy organizations have filed amicus briefs in the case that began when the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) in May filed an amicus brief seeking to overturn a New Jersey School Ethics Commission’s decision not to take action against the pair. The commission is a division of the state Department of Education. 

That prompted the non-profit pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs (SWU) to file its amicus brief on July 25 about the decision not to hear the complaint against Ferris Awaad and Fahim K. Abedrabbo, charging the pair tried to “hijack” a board meeting to spread “misleading” statements and “lies” about Israel.

On Monday, August 8, two additional non-profit advocacy organizations—whose mission is to protect the civil rights of the Jewish community—the Lawfare Project and the Deborah Project, filed their own amicus briefs in the case. On the other side, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (AAADC) also filed an amicus brief Monday in support of Abedrabbo and Awaad. The Jewish Link has obtained copies of all five amicus filings.

“We’ve made a very strong case,” said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA Center for Law and Justice, in an interview with The Jewish Link. “Three groups have filed amicus briefs in support of our position that the school ethics commission’s decision was wrong and that these school board members do not have carte blanche under the law to say whatever they want using their official platforms at school board meetings. Both delivered speeches that had nothing to do with their duties and responsibilities as board members. They attacked Israel, and their attacks crossed the line into antisemitism. Their actions caused members of the public to lose trust in the board, which is a violation of the School Ethics Act.”

The AAADC is a non-profit civil rights organization that works to defend and advocate for the human rights and civil liberties of Arab Americans. Its filing is being handled by Abed Awad of the Hasbrouck Heights law firm of Awad & Khoury. In his brief, Awad said AAADC had a “strong interest” in ensuring Arab-Americans can speak freely about “fact-based” issues at school board meetings and charged that, “The Appellant is attempting to utilize antisemitism as a veil for what is really a racially motivated attempt to silence the Respondents and prohibit them from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

The initial complaint to the state ethics commission was filed by Elisabeth Schwartz, a former Englewood board of education member whose nephew, Ezra Schwartz, had been killed in a terrorist attack in Israel, where he was taking a gap year before entering Rutgers University.

The Lawfare Project is a legal think tank and litigation fund focusing on matters of civil and human rights, discrimination, antisemitism and counterterrorism. One of its major focuses is protecting the constitutional rights and ensuring equal protection of the Jewish community under the law. Its filing, handled by Jane J. Felton of the Livingston law firm of Skoloff &Wolfe, called the state commission’s dismissal of Schwartz’s complaint “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.”

The brief said that the commission’s decision left “the justifiable impression among the public that the Respondents are biased against Israeli nationals and raise significant concerns that Israeli nationality may play a role in negative decisions by the Clifton Board.”

The Deborah Project is a non-profit, nonpartisan public interest law firm that represents individuals who have been discriminated against in educational institutions because they are Jewish or Zionists. Its brief was filed by Ronald D. Coleman of the Newark-based Dhillon Law Group. In his filing, Coleman said the group is taking action based on an issue central to its mission: “Whether a New Jersey public official’s use of his official status to denounce the Jewish state’s right to exist and to defend itself, on the basis of false and libelous accusations against the Jewish people, is legally actionable, especially when another public official’s criticism of a Muslim politician has been held forbidden and sanctionable.”

The Deborah Project’s filing echoed the ZOA’s contention that the commission’s summary dismissal was “completely and inexplicably inconsistent” with its decisions in other similar cases, citing an instance occurring just before the Clifton case in which a school board member had been censured for posting offensive anti-Muslim statements on a personal Facebook page.

The statements that were made by Awaad and Abedrabbo at the May 20, 2021, virtual meeting accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and apartheid and 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.

“The problem posed by this case is that the infliction of such pain on Jews was found to be legally of no consequence even when occurring under the auspices of official government activity which is publicly funded, while the infliction of the same injury on Muslims was found legally actionable by a school board member even when he acted entirely and unequivocally privately,” stated the Deborah Project brief. “Thus, for purposes of deciding what was legally actionable, the School Ethics Commission utilized different standards: one for Muslims and another for Jews.”

Among the assertions that had been made by Awaad were that $40 billion of American taxpayer money is being used to “oppress” the Palestinian people, Israel is building “apartheid-style” walls in Gaza and basically keeping Palestinians “locked up in a prison,” Israel is a colonialist and apartheid state, 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 Minneapolis police used a learned Israeli tactic to kill George Floyd.

The SWU filing stated tying a murder in Minneapolis to Israel was “factually strained, misinformed and an antisemitic conspiracy theory.”

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.

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