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Free speech or hate speech? Clifton candidate's comments on Middle East may sway election

By: Deena Yellin | | November 3, 2022

Eighteen months later, a city school commissioner's critical comments about Israel's treatment of Palestinians are dogging him on the campaign trail — and fueling a debate over political speeches during public meetings.

Fahim Abedrabbo, a trustee on the Clifton Board of Education, is seeking a new office — he's among 17 candidates vying for seven seats on the City Council in next week's election. But his remarks last year have drawn the ire of some residents and prompted a court case alleging he violated New Jersey's School Ethics Act by using his platform to attack Israel.

During a board meeting on May 20, 2021, Abedrabbo delivered a speech in which he referred to clashes in Israel, saying he worried about Palestinian children whose "homes will be destroyed or their neighborhoods being ethnically cleansed." A Palestinian American born in the U.S., he recounted being detained and strip-searched, apparently by Israeli forces.

Abedraddo defends the comments as legitimate criticisms of Israeli policy and says they weren't directed at Jewish people in general. But Elisabeth Schwartz, an Englewood resident who filed the initial ethics complaint in the case, accused him of espousing "hateful and untruthful views about Israel."

"It was not only unethical but dangerous given the horrendous amount of antisemitism in the USA today," she said.

The comments by Abedrabbo came amid the worst fighting in years between Israeli and Palestinian forces. During an 11-day battle that month, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired more than 4,300 rockets into Israel, which responded with airstrikes on Gaza. Palestinian health authorities said more than 250 people were killed and 1,900 wounded in Gaza, and the Israeli military said 13 people were killed inside Israel, with hundreds treated for injuries.

The tensions spread beyond the region, with a surge of antisemitic and, to a lesser extent, anti-Muslim violence reported in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Against that backdrop, Abedrabbo and another school commissioner, Feras Awwad, spoke out during a virtual board meeting at which student lunches, school crossings and other topics were under discussion.

Abedrabbo said his prayers were "with people across the world, particularly in the Middle East; for all people to be treated equal, without duress and occupation." He added, "children should be able to attend schools without worrying whether their homes will be destroyed or their neighborhoods being ethnically cleansed by groups of people ... Children should be taught the truths of the world, and not one-sided history."

He said he was "darn proud" to be born in the United States. "But," he added, "I've gone six times back to Palestine, the land of my grandparents. I've been detained. I've been strip-searched. I've looked down the barrel of a gun to protect my sister. Yes, I can tell you that story. OK, that's only three occasions out of the six,"

Abedrabbo described a nightmare his young daughter had that he and his wife "were shot at the border. ... Mama was shot in the back, and I was shot in the leg ... at the borders with guns and permits that we were asked for, by not Palestinians — I'm not gonna say who; you can use your own imagination."

Awwad, meanwhile, called Gaza an "open-air prison" and decried conditions for Palestinians. He blamed the death of George Floyd on "abusive tactics" that he said American police forces had learned from training in Israel. "When George Floyd, may he rest in peace, died because an officer decided to put a knee to his neck ... that is an Israeli tactic," he said.

"Black Lives Matter," he added. "Free Palestine, and peace to the world."

Abedrabbo made it clear during the meeting that his speech represented only his own opinions and not those of the board. But the remarks sparked an emotional, hours-long debate at a subsequent meeting, in which many residents argued that Middle East politics had no place in a Board of Education discussion. Some said that the speeches sparked hate and divisiveness in a city that has traditionally prided itself in its diversity.

Photo by Kevin R. Wexler -

The controversy didn't end there. In September of last year, Schwartz filed a complaint with the New Jersey School Ethics Commission. Schwartz, a former Englewood school board member, said she learned of the comments from Jewish media.

Schwartz's nephew, 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz of Boston, was killed in a terrorist attack in 2015 during a year of study in Israel. She was appalled by the statements at the Clifton board meeting. Her nephew's tragedy, she said, has made her more sensitive to how inflammatory rhetoric against Jews and Israel can lead to violence.

Abedrabbo "has shown no remorse and instead derided Clifton residents when confronted," she said. "It's imperative that people don't vote for Abedrabbo given that he seems to be care more about expressing hateful lies than doing what is best for residents."

Schwartz said her goal is to have the two board members sanctioned, ideally including their removal as school trustees.

Abedrabbo, whose council campaign has focused on flooding, public safety and government transparency, said in an interview this week that he didn't think there was anything offensive about what he said.

"I didn't say anything controversial about the Middle East," he said. "I said my personal opinions about what I have been through personally. I feel like we need to talk about it in order to understand each other. I said my prayers and heart was with the people of Gaza. It's similar to saying that my prayers and heart are with the people of Ukraine."

Calls to attorney Stephen Fogarty of Fair Lawn, who represents the commissioners, were not immediately returned.

The New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, has come to the two men's defense, saying critics are trying to squelch debate about conditions in Israel.

"We continue to stand with Fahim and Feras while they are unjustly being attacked," said Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR-New Jersey. "They have every right to speak out against the occupation of the Palestinian people and that is not hate speech. Standing up for the oppressed should not be equated to antisemitism."

In January, the School Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint, ruling that while it acknowledged the controversial nature of the comments, "likely perceived as offensive, and hurtful to members of the District's Jewish community," there was no proof that they violated the School Ethics Act.

The nine-member ethics commission noted that the Clifton school board has no policy limiting what trustees can discuss during public sessions. Board members can "make personal comments on any matter a member sees fit so long as a member makes clear the opinion does not represent that of the board, which respondents did," the panel wrote in their decision.

Schwartz appealed the ruling to state court this May, represented by attorney Jeffrey Schreiber of New York and Susan Tuchman of the non-profit Zionist Organization of America's Center for Law and Justice.

Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are connected, said Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUS, an international group that fights antisemitism and one of three groups that filed legal briefs in support of Schwartz's claim. "Israel is an important aspect of Jewish identity for most Jews. It is where fifty percent of the world's Jewish population lives and is also where Judaism began thousands of years ago," she said. "As such, modern-day antisemitic rhetoric often targets Israel as a proxy for Jews collectively, which can fuel bigotry against individual Jews worldwide."

The case is pending before the Appellate Division of New Jersey's Superior Court. No oral arguments have been scheduled yet.

Whether the remarks prove decisive in Tuesday's election remains to be seen. Ari Gross, a businessman and longtime Clifton resident, told a reporter that while Board of Education members are entitled to have strong political opinions about the Middle East, it should not become "an agenda of a Clifton government meeting."

Johnathan Gold, another city resident, said Jews in town may feel uncomfortable with Abedrabbo representing them. "There are people who may be afraid to approach a council person or Board of Ed trustee who they fear is biased against them," he said.


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