WESTFIELD, NJ — The vice president of the Westfield School Board spoke out against critics who have accused her of sharing antisemitic posts on social media at Tuesday night's board meeting.
Sahar Aziz, the first Muslim and Arab woman to be elected to Westfield's Board of Education — as well as one of the first people of color to be elected — has recently faced backlash from the community for retweeting posts relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict in the Middle East on her personal Twitter account.
Aziz defended herself at the end of Tuesday's meeting, stating that she has faced Islamophobia throughout her tenure on the board and that claims of her being antisemitic are untrue.
"Last meeting, out of the blue, I was accused of being anti-Semitic for retweets on my personal account, as a professor [and] 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.
Besides serving on the Board, Aziz is a law professor at Rutgers University.
The Tweets In Question
One of the retweets that people have taken issue with is an article that seeks to redefine the quote "from the river to the sea Palestine will be free."
According to the American Jewish Committee, the phrase is a common call-to-arms for Palestinian activists, demanding the establishment of the State of Palestine and erasing the State of Israel and its people. However, the article Aziz retweeted argues that the phrase calls for an end of the oppressive system in which Palestinians are "far less free than Jews" and that the phrase does not call for the murder of Israeli Jews.
"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 states.
Aziz has also been criticized for a Tweet in which she shares a letter from a coalition of groups opposed to the Anti-Defamation League — a Jewish non-governmental organization that aims to fight anti-semitism, as well as combat extremism and hate.
"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," Aziz Tweeted.
Criticism of the Vice President
Kyle George of Short Hills Court spoke at the meeting, saying that the "river to the sea" phrase is "absolutely antisemitic," and he expressed concern over Aziz's position on the district's curriculum committee.
"The ADL is the district partner for 'no place for hate' and the VP sits on committees, like the curriculum committee, that are tasked with directly addressing the rampant antisemitism in our schools ..." George said.
"Remember, Westfield High School has had repeated antisemitism, including swastikas," he added.
George is referring to an incident at the high school where a swastika was found etched into a bathroom stall in March and then two more in December.
But Aziz said the criticism she has faced for her Tweets takes away from "real antisemitism" and that she should not be punished for her freedom of speech.
"The right to dissent, free speech rights, are fundamental rights of any resident of the U.S.," Aziz said.
"To come and take speech that has nothing to do with the Board of Education's business ... and allege that I was essentially anti-Semitic is a form of censorship. And it's also a form of ... [abusing] the real oppression against Jews, the real antisemitism that does occur in this society ..."
Aziz pointed out several instances, while serving on the Board of Education, where she faced Islamophobia from meeting attendees.
"At the first in-person meeting in August ... I was called disgusting, I was called 'that woman,'" Aziz said, motioning with a pointed finger at the audience.
"When I spoke and when my colleagues spoke, that were women, we had men shouting over us. Not even allowing us to talk. I had an email sent to me by a gentleman in Westfield who said 'I'm going to make it my goal to remove you from the Westfield Board of Education' within the first couple months."
Aziz went on to say that this same person has slandered her across Facebook, accusing her of being a Hamas supporter, which is designated terrorist group.
Earlier in the meeting, the Board shared a presentation on a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program that the district has been working on. Aziz said the same individuals who said threatening things to her have argued against DEI and have criticized her for being a critical race theorist.
She said these people also lost in board elections and have self-interested motivations.
Community Defends Aziz
Several audience members at the meeting, the majority not even Westfield residents, stood up at the podium and defended Aziz's position.
Wail Rashid, the president of the Islamic Center for Union County, said he is proud of the Westfield community for electing Aziz to the school board.
"We, as Muslims in Union County and Westfield, support [Aziz] 100 percent," Rashid said. "She belongs and she belongs on this Board of Ed."
Black Lives Matter organizer Zellie Thomas of Patterson also expressed support for Aziz's statements and her freedom to express her opinions via social media.
"If you want peace for our students and peace for humanity, we need to stop oppression, not to stop people from talking about it," Thomas said.
Additionally, Tova Fry — a member of Jewish Voice for Peace — argued that being Jewish and Judaism is not synonymous with Zionism or support for Israel. She said the organization agrees with Amnesty International Human Rights Watch that Israel is an apartheid state.
Fry said there is "absolutely nothing antisemitic" about the phrase "from the river to the sea" and that Aziz has every right to her free speech.
Patch reached out to Westfield's Board of Education for a comment, but they did not respond upon request.
According to Tapinto, the board president and attorney said Aziz's social media postings do not violate board policy or any law.
The full meeting from Tuesday can be viewed on YouTube.