WESTFIELD, NJ — People from across North Jersey turned out at a school board meeting in Westfield this week to support a Board of Education member who faced criticism for her Tweets on Palestinian-Israeli politics.
School board Vice President Sahar Aziz, who is the first Arab and the first Muslim woman elected to the Westfield school board, on Tuesday countered the accusations lodged by two members of the public at a board meeting earlier this month claiming her social media postings are antisemitic.
"I was accused of being antisemitic for tweets, retweets on my personal account as a professor, as an expert on the Middle East on issues related to foreign policy that have absolutely nothing to do with the board of education," Aziz said.
Both the board president and attorney have told TAPinto Westfield that her social media postings do not violate board policy or any law.
One of the retweets in question seeks to redefine the phrase "from the river to the sea Palestine will be free." While according to the American Jewish Committee, the phrase symbolizes Palestinian control over all of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, the article Aziz shared says otherwise.
"It is an invitation for Palestinians and Jews alike to imagine themselves as free and equal in this land, liberated from the oppressive power relations that prevail today," the article in +972 Magazine says. Named after a zip code Israel and the Palestinian territories share, the publication provides reporting, analysis and opinion from Israel-Palestine, according to its about page.
In another Tweet, Aziz shares a letter from a coalition of groups opposed to the Anti-Defamation League.
"ADL has an ongoing pattern of attacking social justice movements by ... immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, ... while aligning itself with right-wing leaders, and perpetrators of state violence," she states.
Aziz cast the criticism from residents at Westfield's Feb. 8 school board meeting as among a series of attacks on her character that are based on her gender and her race. These attacks, she said, were also present during the first in-person meeting the Westfield Board of Education held over the summer. At that meeting, audience members hurled insults at her.
"I was called 'disgusting.' I was called 'that woman,'" Aziz said, mimicking the finger pointing from the audience.
Denying people the same rights that are afforded to others is a form of Islamophobia, she said.
"The right to dissent, free speech rights are the fundamental right of any resident of the U.S.," Aziz said.
Aziz said she is bothered that people would use instances of actual antisemitism "for ulterior motives that are self-interested and ideological based on your foreign policy positions."
"That not only is Islamophobic, but it also does injustice to [fighting] antisemitism because a Nazi symbol in a bathroom is absolutely antisemitic," Aziz said.
The public school district has seen repeated swastikas and other hate graffiti scrawled in public places, and on Tuesday school officials reported on the progress of district goals, including one on diversity, equity and inclusion, commonly called DEI.
Wail Rasheed, president of the Islamic Center of Union County, spoke in support of both Aziz and the district's efforts in support of DEI.
"The Muslim community can help," Rasheed said. "We are here for you. And we're here to help build a better education safety environment for all the diverse people in Union County."
Tova Fry, who spoke on behalf of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that that considers Israel to be an apartheid state, also defended Aziz. Fry specifically addressed the "river to the sea" retweet.
"It's a phrase I've repeated myself countless times over many years," said Fry, a resident of West Orange. "There's absolutely nothing antisemitic about this, and Professor Aziz has every right to her free speech."
"Antisemitism is an ugly form of racism that should be shut down and refuted at every opportunity," said CAIR-NJ Executive Director Selaedin Maksut. "But valid criticism of internationally-recognized apartheid and war crimes is not antisemitism."
At the meeting, Paterson Black Lives Matter organizer Zellie Thomas expressed his support for Aziz and her statements.
"A tool of oppression is to silence those that want to end oppression," Thomas said. "But silence is not peace. Only the absence of oppression is peace. If you want peace for our students and peace for humanity, we need to stop oppression, not to stop people from talking about it."