NJ School Boards Fend Off Legal Attacks on Pro-Palestine Speech
For at least the second time within the span of a year, a local school board in the state has heard criticism about an elected board member publicly voicing pro-Palestinian views that some critics called anti-Semitic.
Rutgers University law professor and Westfield Board of Education Vice President Sahar Aziz this month was criticized by two residents for tweeting about Palestine.
The New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations has defended Aziz’s right to free speech and said that such comments on her professional activity are an attempt at smearing Aziz for her stance on Palestinians.
At the township’s Board of Education meeting on Feb. 8, in between multiple speakers criticizing the nearly expired school mask mandate, resident Kyle George said that he took issue with Aziz's Twitter activity concerning Mideast politics, saying articles that the board member shares amount to anti-Semitism.
“Chanting ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is not anti-Semitic. Rather, it’s an invitation for Palestinians and Jews to imagine themselves as free and equal in this land. Why is that so terrifying to many,” Konrad said on Twitter in sharing the article, as recapped by CAIR-NJ.
Fellow school board officials said that tweet, reshared by Aziz, and others do not violate New Jersey’s School Ethics Act.
Aziz has said such retweets are part of her work as a law professor and as an expert on the Middle East, separate from her work as a school board member.
“The board member is an expert on this region of the world,” George said in making his public comments. “To be clear, she is of course entitled to her opinion as an American, but there are protocols and decorum for BOE members and the BOE must govern in the best interest of all students.”
The American Jewish Committee shared the parameters by which it considered “from the river to the sea” to be anti-Semitic.
“There is of course nothing anti-Semitic about advocating for Palestinians to have their own state. However, calling for the elimination of the Jewish state, or suggesting that the Jews alone do not have the right to self-determination, is antisemitic,” according to the AJC website.
“Usage of this phrase, regardless of intent, can have the effect of making members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community feel beleaguered and ostracized,” the Anti-Defamation League has said.
A different viewpoint was given in 2018, when a CNN analyst was fired after using the same phrase in addressing the United Nations.
“Dismissing or ignoring what this phrase means to the Palestinians is yet another means by which to silence Palestinian perspectives,” University of Arizona Associate Professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, Maha Nassar wrote.
“Citing only Hamas leaders’ use of the phrase, while disregarding the liberationist context in which other Palestinians understand it, shows a disturbing level of ignorance about Palestinians’ views at best, and a deliberate attempt to smear their legitimate aspirations at worst,” he continued.
Emily Barker, who lost as a candidate for the Westfield school board in November, was the other resident at the Feb. 8 meeting to ask about the same Jan. 30 retweet, linking to the article about actions in the United Kingdom.
She first called for a better curriculum on the atrocities of the Holocaust, saying that the public school district’s approach to “teaching African American slavery is a thoughtful, multilayered approach.” Barker previously has said that Critical Race Theory is too "divisive," in her opinion.
Barker then said that retweeting the article amounted to anti-Semitic hate speech and said the use of the phrase “is essentially calling for genocide.”
CAIR-NJ Executive Director Selaedin Maksut said such criticism was “baseless attacks.”
“Professor Aziz is a distinguished academic and attorney who is being targeted with ugly smears for exercising her right to free speech and defending Palestinian human rights,” Maksut said.
“We’re confident that there has been no violation of any state law or board bylaw,” Westfield Board of Education President Brendan Galligan said of his colleague’s twitter activity, adding “The tweets were made on Sahar’s personal account and they aren’t in violation.”
Islamic Center of Union County President Dr. Wail Rasheed also voiced support for Aziz.
“Professor Aziz is a distinguished academic and attorney who is being targeted with ugly smears for exercising her right to free speech and defending Palestinian human rights,” CAIR-NJ Executive Director Selaedin Maksut said in a statement, calling such criticism “baseless attacks.”
Another to voice support for Aziz was Islamic Center of Union County President Wail Rasheed.
“We stand in solidarity with Professor Sahar Aziz. The Professor has done nothing wrong. She has every right to be vocal on her personal social media and comment on issues that are relevant to her area of expertise and we condemn all forms of racism, including antisemitism. But to equate the Professor’s posts with antisemitism is inaccurate and unjust,” Rasheed said in a written statement.
Clifton complaint after pro-Palestine comments
Comments made during a North Jersey school board meeting last spring also raised criticism, as a formal complaint was lodged with state education officials, before ultimately being dismissed last month.
“Last year, others similarly attempted to silence two Clifton Board of Education members for voicing solidarity with Palestine but failed in their efforts after the school ethics commission dismissed the complaints,” Maksut also said.
The state School Ethics Commission, part of the Department of Education, last month dismissed the complaint against Clifton BOE members, Fahim Abedrabbo and Feras Awwad, accusing them of anti-Semitism for public statements last year in support of Palestine.
The complaint was filed by former Englewood Board of Education member Elisabeth Schwartz, who said such statements at a board meeting had “negatively impacted the welfare of Jewish students.”
It was formally dismissed on Jan. 25, based on “failure to plead sufficient credible facts to support the allegations.”
“These desperate attempts to take away our right to free speech are deeply troubling, and should never be entertained or taken seriously by our elected officials or the public,” Maksut said.
“Elected officials and all Americans have the right to be critical of foreign governments and political ideologies, especially those promoting racial and religious apartheid and the denial of basic human rights.”
Maksut said that critique of Israel or Zionism is not equivalent to antisemitism, and thus is protected by the constitutional right to free speech.