The May 9 action replacing Sahar Aziz was made at the annual reorganization meeting following board elections the previous month where new members were sworn in and a board president and vice president were elected.
Aziz cast the only dissenting vote against Robert Benacchio as the new vice president. There was praise for Benacchio from other board members and no comment about Aziz or any indication if the investigation was behind the move.
However, Aziz herself expressed surprise that he was seeking the position, stating, “This is the first time I heard you were running. I heard hearsay you were running. I appreciate you willing to step up for leadership, although I do wish I had been contacted.”
At a stormy board meeting several months ago, where audience members both sharply criticized her and defended her, Aziz said she had been repeatedly subjected to Islamophobia during her tenure on the board and denied she was antisemitic.
Aziz, a Rutgers School of Law professor and the first Arab board member, had posted anti-Israel views on social media and signed a public manifesto that calls Israel “apartheid” and refers to “racial supremacy of Jewish-Zionist nationals.”
The complaint against her was filed by local resident Stephanie Siegel with assistance from the Deborah Project, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Merion Station, Pennsylvania dedicated since 2016 to protecting Jewish civil rights in the American educational system.
In the complaint, Lori Lowenthal Marcus, the firm’s legal director, said Aziz’s “anti-Israel, antisemitic and anti-Zionist statements … are clear violations of New Jersey and Westfield law.”
She noted that in September 2021 the Union County municipality’s town council adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
IHRA is a non-legally binding resolution adopted by 31 member countries, including the U.S., stating that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and cites several examples, including the “targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”
Lowenthal Marcus said Aziz’s statements met the criteria for antisemitism and violated state regulations requiring education officials refrain from making remarks that suggest “apparent bias.”
“Over and over again, this board of education member has spoken publicly—not on her private Facebook page, but using her bully pulpit while a New Jersey education official—to attack the Jewish people, advancing vituperation utilizing Nazi terminology, invoking the Jewish commitment to Zion as proof that Jews believe themselves to be the “master race,” stated Lowenthal Marcus. “Her denunciation of the existence of the State of Israel as a “settler colonial state” is an explicit denial that the Jewish people have any connection to the land of Israel.”
In response, Matthew Giacobbe of the Oakland firm of Giacobbe Alfieri Jacobs, LLC. called the most recent complaint “a ploy to dismantle Aziz’s academic scholarship and freedom of speech rights and censor any debate or criticism of Israel.”
“Specifically Siegel and the Deborah Project posit that any scholarship and/or speech supportive of Palestinians and critical of the State of Israel is by its very existence antisemitic; relying for support almost entirely on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism,” he stated. “However, calls for freedom, justice and/or equality for Palestinians, or statements that criticizes Israeli policies, are not the same as anti-Jewish hate. Blurring those lines results in censorship of constitutionally protected political speech and academic freedom.”
In his response to commission Director Kathryn Whelan Giacobbe called for the Deborah Project and Siegel to be sanctioned and fined to reimburse taxpayers the costs of defending Aziz against the “frivolous” allegations.
However, Lowenthal Marcus countered that: “Ms. Siegal is fully entitled—indeed, she has a Constitutional right, under the First Amendment’s clause entitling her to petition for redress of grievances—to call out that bias, and Aziz’s commitment to advance her own personal opinions, as violations of the New Jersey School Ethics Act.”
Among the actions cited by Lowenthal Marcus are social media posts supporting the retention as an educator of a high school coach who was fired for making obscenity-laced public statements attacking “Zionists” and a social media post claiming “apartheid is a tool of Zionist” action and that Israel maintains a “settler-colonial regime.”
She noted that Siegel, a Zionist, her children, and others who share her views, were implicated as “racists” and felt attacked by Aziz.
“If Aziz simply had the opinions she has, and spoke about them, and engaged in scholarship advancing them, this would be a different case,” wrote Lowenthal Marcus. ”But Aziz has publicly bound herself in writing to placing her personal opinions at the center of Westfield’s classrooms—which means placing everyone else’s opinions at the margins or beyond. That is the essence of bias.”
Debra Rubin has had a long career in journalism writing for secular weekly and daily newspapers and Jewish publications. She most recently served as Middlesex/Monmouth bureau chief for the New Jersey Jewish News. She also worked with the media at several nonprofits, including serving as assistant public relations director of HIAS and assistant director of media relations at Yeshiva University