By Walter Ruby and Gary Sampliner
Special to WJW
In “Principle and courage under fire” (Editorial, May 25), WJW applauded the decision of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington to rescind its award for promoting faith equity to Fairfax County School Board member Abrar Omeish, as an act of “principle over expediency, showing communal leadership and purpose.”
While the JCRC certainly had every right to rescind its award to Omeish, the statement it released to explain its unusual action was far more destructive than helpful to its mission of “building interfaith respect, cooperation, allyship and friendship.”
As the editorial notes, on May 13, at the height of the brutal conflict between Israel and Hamas, Omeish tweeted and posted on Facebook a celebratory message for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr that ends the month of Ramadan; yet added the following words: “Hurts my heart to celebrate while Israel kills Palestinians & desecrates the Holy Land right now. Apartheid & colonization were wrong yesterday and will be today, here and there. May justice + truth prevail.”
Many of Omeish’s Jewish constituents, including rabbis and community leaders, responded with declarations of the hurt they felt over the harshness of her denunciation of Israel, and omission of any countervailing criticism of Hamas for indiscriminate rocket fire at Israel.
Omeish responded the next day by tweeting a more conciliatory message, saying in part, “War is terrible for everyone. I hear those hurting. I’m here for each of you…. I look ahead to robust & empathetic engagement with Jewish leaders.”
While she did not say anything specifically critical of Hamas’ actions or empathetic to Israelis, Omeish at least made clear she understood her comments had hurt some Jewish constituents and showed her continued willingness to work for and with them.
Nevertheless, given Omeish’s unwillingness to condemn Hamas or express compassion for Israelis, we can understand why JCRC decided to rescind its award. Unfortunately, JCRC went much further than revoking the award for those reasons. In an accompanying statement, it termed Omeish’s comments “hateful,” and asserted that by posting them on social media she “disenfranchised the thousands of Jewish families in her district” through language that is “deeply offensive and inflammatory to all who support Israel.”
Using words that are certain to be cited by the Fairfax Republican party and others who are demanding that Omeish be removed from the school board over her criticism of Israel, JCRC accused her of making statements “that target and marginalize Jewish students and their families and divide our community,” adding, “Her actions constituted a dereliction of her duty and they compromise the entire Board. She should be held accountable.”
The JCRC’s defenestration of Omeish didn’t stop there. Omitting mention of her conciliatory tweet, the JCRC leveled a false accusation that “she has continued to stoke the flames of division and acrimony,” because she did not take down her initial tweet or take steps satisfactory to the JCRC to stem subsequent “vitriolic, hateful rhetoric on social media triggered by her remarks” — much of which, ironically, was aimed against her.
We recognize the argument that public officials of a local school board should take care to avoid making public statements on issues outside of their official purview that may inflame and offend some of their constituencies. And one can legitimately criticize Omeish’s failure to acknowledge the terror inflicted on Israel by Hamas and the over-simplification of describing Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians as “apartheid & colonization.”
Yet we do not think anyone has reason to question the genuineness of Omeish’s anguish over the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli bombing of apartment buildings in Gaza or her horror over repeated Israeli police raids at the Al-Aqsa Mosque that Muslims around the world believe desecrated the third-holiest Islamic shrine in the world.
We are most deeply disturbed that the JCRC accused Omeish of everything short of an antisemitic attack against her Jewish constituents. In what way did Omeish’s May 13 tweet “disenfranchise[,] . . .target and marginalize Jewish students and their families” in Fairfax County? The JCRC doesn’t say, and we can see nothing in her tweets to support these conclusions. Does JCRC mean to convey the message that if elected Muslim officials dare to criticize actions of the Israeli government, they should expect a pressure campaign virtually accusing them of incitement against the Jewish community?
Indeed, we have heard concerns expressed by leaders of the Muslim community, with whom we have worked for years to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations in Northern Virginia, that if they speak honestly about their dismay over recent Israeli actions, they, too, may be accused of incitement. Unfortunately, the over-the-top JCRC condemnation of Omeish could spread fear and serves to chill the free and candid speech we need if we are to build genuine interfaith harmony.
If the JCRC indeed “deeply values its relationships with our Muslim friends and neighbors” and is “committed to engaging with empathy, discretion, and sensitivity” with them, as it claims in its statement about
Omeish, it needs to grapple with the sad reality that its own vitriolic accusations have the potential to set back Muslim-Jewish relations in northern Virginia — long among the most extensive in the U.S. — for some time to come.
Walter Ruby and Gary Sampliner are members of the executive board of JAMAAT (Jews and Muslims and Allies Acting Together), a grassroots interfaith body in the Washington region.
The JCRC’s condemnation of school board member Abrar Omeish’s anti-Israel remarks was certainly not overblown. Indeed, it was principled, necessary and appropriate considering that Omeish’s remarks were not merely critical of particular Israeli government policies. No, they were clearly insensitive remarks intended to denigrate and defame the entire Zionist enterprise, and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the Land of Israel. As such, they meet the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) working definition of Anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionism is an affront the Jewish people, and a recognized factor that incites Jew-hatred and violence everywhere. Thus, the JCRC was absolutely correct in condemning Omeish’s comments as “hateful,” “stoking the flames of acrimony and division” and “deeply offensive and inflammatory” to the Jewish families in her district and, indeed all Jews. If we have learned anything from the tsunami of Anti-Semitic hatred and violence that occurred nationwide last month it should be that soft-pedaling Anti-Semitic and Anti-Zionist remarks and actions will only lead to more of the same.
Thank you Walter Ruby and Gary Sampliner for speaking out in such a thoughtful way, as well as for the ongoing work that you do. It is essential that our Jewish and Muslim communities work together for interfaith harmony and to stem the hatred against minorities in this country. Let’s focus on compassion, empathy, and respect for the human dignity of all.
The JCRC did not take lightly our choice of words, and we stand behind our statement. We have no desire to engage in a tit-for-tat about this issue, but rather will focus on furthering dialogue between local leaders and the tens of thousands of Jews across Fairfax County and the rest of the DMV who were not only anguished by the death, destruction and terror perpetrated against their Israeli brethren last month, but who are also fearfully grappling with the recent dramatic and unprecedented surge in violent and hateful antisemitism in our own country. The Jewish community’s experience of being targeted is largely unseen by the broader community, and we need the vocal moral support of our leaders now more than ever.
As the representatives of the Jewish community in Greater Washington, we are supporting numerous FCPS stakeholders who have reported in recent weeks about Jewish students, faculty members and even school board members being subjected to horrific, frightening invective online. We look to our local leaders to partner with us in speaking out and bringing the community back together, not to fan the flames of division.
We deeply value our relationships with our interfaith and intergroup partners and commend JAMAAT for fostering the dialogue and community-building that are so important to our region. We are committed to this sacred work and to bringing our full identities as Jews and Zionists to the interfaith table when we do so.
Ron Halber, executive director
Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director
JCRC of Greater Washington