Over the past few days, as violence raged in Israel and Gaza, you might have run into stories such as the following, focused on Fairfax County, Virginia:
- Tweet by Fairfax Co. School Board Member Sparks Backlash, Support (“School Board Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish tweeted in support of Palestinians and criticized Israel”)
- Tweet about Israel becomes focus at Fairfax Co. school board meeting
- Controversial Tweet Draws Outcry and Support for Fairfax County School Board Member
- Support After Tweet About Israel Grows For School Board Member (“Supporters of Fairfax County School Board Member Abrar Omeish gathered Thursday night to push back against calls for her resignation.”)
For the record, Omeish’s May 13 tweet/Facebook post read as follows:
“Eid Mubarak! Congrats on 30 days of worship! 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.”
Omeish also posted a new statement, on May 14:
“War is terrible for everyone. I hear those hurting. I continue to be here for each of you. People of all faiths deserve Holy Land peace. All forms of hate are unacceptable. Ensuring justice & honoring the humanity of everyone remains as urgent as ever. I look ahead to robust & empathetic engagement with Jewish leaders and all allies. Let’s build together.”
In response, Omeish’s fellow Fairfax County School Board member, Melanie Meren, responded on May 14:
“As a School Board Member I’m aghast at the alienation Abrar Omeish’s sentiment has cast on many in our community, including myself, and am appalled at the setback this puts in FCPS’ equity work. Rebuilding of relationships will need to happen.”
The JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) also responded to Omeish, after her second tweet, as follows:
JCRC has engaged in honest, respectful, and challenging dialogue with Abrar Omeish regarding her deeply hurtful and offensive tweet yesterday. Today she posted a second message. We appreciate Ms. Omeish’s openness to dialogue and her support for faith equity within @fcpsnews.
Although then on May 19, the JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council) of Greater Washington wrote the following:
“After several months working with local interfaith leaders to make the 2021-2022 academic year calendar more equitable for people of faith minorities, the JCRC was grateful to the ‘Fairfax Five for courageously working together to benefit all our communities.”
Ms. Omeish broke that unity by Tweeting a one-sided, inaccurate, and hateful statement that smeared Israel, defamed Israelis, and disenfranchised the thousands of Jewish families in her district. The language Ms. Omeish used in this Tweet is deeply offensive and inflammatory to all who support Israel.”
In that context – and as a truce went into effect in Israel and Gaza – Abrar Omeish delivered the following speech at the Thursday night meeting of the Fairfax County School Board. I’ve posted a full transcript of Omeish’s remarks following the video. A few highlights include:
- “I understand on a deeply human level the pain and the anguish people are feeling abroad and the helplessness that people feel here today who have family in the region, who have ties or just have a personal connection. I know it’s difficult to discuss what’s so personal. And it’s important to acknowledge in the last 11 days, 12 Israelis have been killed, and 213 Palestinians have lost their lives.”
- “I understand that for many Jewish families, my constituents, that they share a deep and sacred relationship with Israel. And especially in the context of the difficult history and marginalization, it presents a safe haven to prevent what so many are afraid of happening again.”
- “I stand strongly against anti-Semitism; I take that very seriously and personally, because I know what it’s like to experience marginalization, and that parallel experience for me makes that experience personal. And I will not stand for that so long as I am on this Board, so long as I am alive. Demanding justice for the Palestinians and condemning state violence is not anti-Semitism.”
- “While I can have challenging conversations with community members, with colleagues, at the end of the day, they are my sisters and they are my brothers. And I say by name that Melanie and Laura Jane are my sisters, and so are Megan and Stella and Ricardy and Elaine and Karen and Karen and Tammy and Rachna and Karl are my siblings. And we have to strive together to lead and show the community how we can have these conversations.”
- “We must choose to step up and to ensure that we don’t allow those seeking to instill hate and division to capitalize on our disagreement and our differences in points of view.”
Let’s hope that something positive comes out of all of this…
“I’m happy to follow my colleagues and the sentiments that have been shared. As many of you know, just a few weeks ago I spoke here about pluralism. I said that we’re a nation that honors freedom of religion…not from religion. I said that I take pride in the community as a place where we all come to the table, where we can have dialogue. And I celebrated interfaith respect and engagement that I had worked to build over the course of months together, where folks don’t feel afraid; this is a place where we can confront courageously the differences that we come with to that table, and that diversity is something we welcome for that purpose.
I hear those students who feel afraid. I have heard your emails; to the community, to my constituents who feel targeted. I hear those who feel silenced and who want to take a stand. I understand on a deeply human level the pain and the anguish people are feeling abroad and the helplessness that people feel here today who have family in the region, who have ties or just have a personal connection. I know it’s difficult to discuss what’s so personal. And it’s important to acknowledge in the last 11 days, 12 Israelis have been killed, and 213 Palestinians have lost their lives. And according to UN reports, nearly 2,000 people have been injured and 90,000 have been displaced.
We teach our kids about this conflict and we have to model how to have these conversations. I understand that for many Jewish families, my constituents, that they share a deep and sacred relationship with Israel. And especially in the context of the difficult history and marginalization, it presents a safe haven to prevent what so many are afraid of happening again. That’s something I can empathize with and is my duty to. The concept is existential and anything that diminishes that feels no less than a threat. I hear the community’s pain in that, and I’ve been grateful to hear from many constituents and neighbors who have reached out and whom I’ve been able to listen and dialogue with. And I want to continue to listen. The loudest thing I want to be heard today is that I want to listen, I want us to have dialogue and conversation and to be able to empathize with one another. Because that is how we move forward and that is how we grow, and that it’s okay for us to disagree and to come with different perspectives and to feel strongly about those perspectives. But that we have to leave those places open in our hearts to discuss it and to see the humanity in those before us.
We must not forget that we can fight both anti-Semitism and oppression against the Palestinians, and against all those experiencing it together, at the same time. No doubt, I stand strongly against anti-Semitism; I take that very seriously and personally, because I know what it’s like to experience marginalization, and that parallel experience for me makes that experience personal. And I will not stand for that so long as I am on this Board, so long as I am alive. Demanding justice for the Palestinians and condemning state violence is not anti-Semitism. And we can have those conversations. And I know that there are folks who feel differently, and we can talk about that and understand one another. Anti-Semitism is a real and growing threat that must be addressed in our schools, our county, and our world. And conflating the criticism with that only harms those of us seeking to advance justice and diverts our focus from the real issues at hand. We must choose to step up and to ensure that we don’t allow those seeking to instill hate and division to capitalize on our disagreement and our differences in points of view.
We can and must fight these things together – anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia and especially that which is couched as a response to oppression of all kinds together. And in fact our common humanity demands it. If I’m to be an honest representative of the people and someone who speaks out against injustice, I must acknowledge the voices and experiences of all of my constituents, while also uplifting the voices of those who have not been heard. I must speak the truth and ensure we educate our children in a way that prevents us from perpetuating oppression in the future, that we may learn from what’s happening and do better here at home.
Equity, racial, economic, social, faith equity isn’t and shouldn’t ever be a political issue. And social justice can be separated for those who are impacted by its effects. It requires our full humanity and calls on each of us to learn and grow individually and collectively. While I can have challenging conversations with community members, with colleagues, at the end of the day, they are my sisters and they are my brothers. And I say by name that Melanie and Laura Jane are my sisters, and so are Megan and Stella and Ricardy and Elaine and Karen and Karen and Tammy and Rachna and Karl are my siblings. And we have to strive together to lead and show the community how we can have these conversations.
We teach our kids about these things. We continue to model for them what it looks like to have radical empathy, while also speaking truth to power and standing up for justice. I continue to work on these things. I want to be able to have these conversations and I do want to have the humility as well to be able to emphasize properly. and I understand that in my own understanding of growing and we all are constantly developing in how we relate to one another and we’re negotiating space in the conversation, I continue to work to ensure that we have a more inclusive learning environment for each of our students. I had shared with many of you the beginnings of my vision to set in place accountability mechanisms, to be very loud and clear for those who have misunderstood and in the cloud and confusion of everything that has happened, that I take my representation of you and every single one of you, including my Jewish students and families and staff very seriously. And I understand that words are words, but the months of my efforts I hope will speak to that and and the future efforts will continue to.
I’m currently focusing my efforts to work collaboratively on improving the division’s religious accommodations policy. It actually so happened to be coincidental that I
look forward to my roundtable with faith leaders this weekend. I am looking forward to continuing my work on inclusive curriculum where we can teach our children to have these courageous conversations. And as always, I invite our entire community’s engagement and partnership. Rest assured that I fight for your child. I look forward to continued meaningful conversations and work to better our school system and our world by upholding truth and having empathy.
And I also want to recognize that just this past week was the anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education and Plessy vs Ferguson, which were stains in our own country’s path and which call upon us to take bold social justice positions. When Plessy vs Ferguson maintained segregation in this country, until Brown vs Board when that was reversed…And how we live with that legacy, that once upon a time in our nation we had segregated schools And we have moved past that. And that was only possible through courageous conversations and through confronting what we had experienced and welcoming varied points of view and uplifting those voices who have not been heard.
I want to congratulate our graduating seniors; it’s very exciting to be joining for graduations in the coming weeks. And I hope that they’ll go on to be leaders who can learn from what’s going on in their community abroad and the conversation. It’s particularly interesting to me that just today, a ceasefire was announced. And I hope that that can also be an opportunity for us now to say we will do better, we will lead forward in a way that is different. It’s coincidental that I also am speaking to a combating intolerance class tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to hearing from students and having them engaged. And I hope that we always remember that what brings us together is far deeper and far more powerful than anything that will set us apart. And these are not just words. Our shared experiences, our experiences of grief, of joy, our appreciation for family and friendship, these are deep human experiences that nothing can take away the the bonds that develop from that. And our ability to come together and have those disagreements and learn from one another. So I look forward to learning, to listening, and and I hope that folks will engage in the same good faith. And I hope that our students will listen and learn and lead forward differently. I hope that…we continue learning together by giving each other the benefit of doubt, by having open hearts and minds, by empathizing with one another and by continuing the dialogue.”