August 4, 2022
By Debra Rubin
Citing the “misinformed, politically slanted and antisemitic rants” of two Palestinian-American members of the Clifton Board of Education, a leading non-profit pro-Israel advocacy organization has filed an amicus brief in an appeal seeking to overturn a New Jersey School Ethics Commission’s decision not to take action against the pair.
StandWithUs (SWU) filed its brief with the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court on July 25, backing the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which in May filed an appeal of the decision by the commission, part of the state Department of Education, not to hear a complaint against Ferris Awaad and Fahim K. Abedrabbo. In its legal brief the ZOA charged the pair tried to “hijack” a board meeting to spread “misleading” statements and “lies” about Israel.
In the 22-page brief obtained by the Jewish Link, SWU said the Clifton commissioners’ remarks vilifying Israel were devoid of educational value and compromised the board’s credibility.
“Respondents staked their impromptu, off-agenda venom on baseless claims,” the brief stated. “By doing so they showed reckless disregard for the facts and antipathy towards the Jewish people.”
The SWU filing was handled pro bono by Steven Rabitz, a partner in the New York City office of the international law firm of Dechert LLP, with summer associate Tal Fortgang.
The statements made by Awaad and Abedrabbo at the May 20, 2021, virtual meeting accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and apartheid 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.
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 ZOA in its filing said 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 where a school board member had been censured for posting offensive anti-Muslim remarks on a private Facebook page.
The original complaint to the ethics commission was made by Elisabeth Schwartz, a former member of the Englewood Board of Education.
“The State of New Jersey has an obligation to ensure that members of local school boards lawfully and ethically use their platform to create an unbiased educational environment for all students in their district,” said SWU co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein in a statement emailed to the Jewish Link. “Instead, respondents used their official platforms to promote bias and hate. There is no legitimate place for anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric by school board members at public meetings. We hope that the Appellate Division will restore justice to Elisabeth Schwartz and the broader Jewish and Israeli American constituency in New Jersey by overturning the prior decision and giving this case the proper ethical review it deserves.”
SWU noted that Schwartz is “uniquely positioned to convey how school board members’ inflammatory anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric against Jews and Israelis in general can lead to inciting hatred within the district.” Her nephew, 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz from Sharon, Massachusetts was a yeshiva student spending a gap year in Israel before enrolling at Rutgers University. He was shot in 2015 in the West Bank community of Gush Etzion by Palestinian terrorists while returning with classmates after beautifying a nature preserve dedicated to three Israeli teens killed by terrorists the year before.
The he assertions made by Awaad included: $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”; called Israel a colonialist and apartheid state; United States 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 claimed 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.
The ethnic cleansing claim was labeled “dehumanizing and false” by the SWU brief, noting, among other examples, the Palestinian population of East Jerusalem has increased by 300,000 since Israel took control in 1967. It stated the open-air prison claim was debunked in 2005 when Israel withdrew from Gaza, whose residents then elected Hamas to govern them. Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union, United Kingdom and others. The West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The ethics commission’s decision not to pursue the complaint against the Clifton commissioners triggered the ZOA response, filed pro bono by Jeffrey Schreiber, a partner in the East Brunswick office of the law firm of Meister Seelig & Fein, and the Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center for Law and Justice.
“Obviously on our end we think it’s very important that an organization like StandWithUs joins with us because this is obviously a much bigger issue than just Clifton,“ said Schreiber in a phone interview. “I read their brief and they offered a lot of things that needed to be said and offered a lot of good points. StandWithUs is one of the premier organizations for Israel advocacy in the world with a tremendous amount of experience with issues both deep and broad specifically about the how the antisemitic nature of the comments and the commission’s failure to act benefits antisemites in a completely unacceptable way.”
He called the commission’s decision to not censure the Clifton commissioners “an unpardonable abdication” of its investigative responsibilities allowing “school board members to use their offices and podiums to spout antisemitism.”
According to the SWU, Rothstein said the case dovetails with the organization’s dual mission of fighting antisemitism and educating about Israel by highlighting how the local board members abused their platforms to make “ incendiary and false allegations against Israel” and “propagate an antisemitic conspiracy theory.
“Such rhetoric marginalizes Jewish students and community members in their district and fuels antisemitism,” she added. “We feel filing this amicus brief goes directly to the heart of our mission and hope it will inspire more people in the district to actively fight bigotry against Jews.”
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