Fairfax County’s lone Muslim school board member reflects on uproar over Israel criticism

Fairfax County School Board Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish addresses the reaction to her tweet criticizing Israel at the board’s May 20 meeting (via FCPS/YouTube)

(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Abrar Omeish doesn’t regret taking a stand on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, but if she could go back, she might have expressed her opinion a little differently.

The at-large Fairfax County School Board member sparked a heated local debate about one of the most contentious subjects in global politics last month when she recognized Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that concludes a month of fasting, with a tweet decrying Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid and colonization.”

As the board’s only Muslim member and the first Muslim woman elected to a school board anywhere in Virginia, Omeish says she felt a responsibility to speak up about the escalating violence that, at that time, had killed 10 people in Israel, including two children, and 192 people in Gaza, including 58 children.

Her May 13 tweet was part of the larger #EidwithPalestine hashtag that went emerged after Israeli security forces stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem amid tensions over Palestinians being evicted from the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

“The idea was [Muslims] celebrate [Eid], but it’s bittersweet because we can celebrate while mourning and knowing that our Holy Land is being disrespected and people are being killed in their efforts to defend it,” Omeish told Reston Now. “…Being, like you said, the only Muslim voice, I felt tremendous pressure, and it’s not like I didn’t anticipate backlash.”

That backlash came from expected sources, given the school board’s decidedly Democratic makeup, as the Fairfax County Republican Committee chair called for Omeish’s resignation or removal and endorsed a parent-led campaign to recall her and other school board members that originally stemmed from frustrations with pandemic-related school closures in the fall.

However, the tweet also drew some criticism from colleagues and allies.

Hunter Mill District School Board Representative Melanie Meren said in a tweet on May 14 that she was “aghast” and “appalled,” calling Omeish’s sentiments alienating to members of the community, including herself, and a setback to Fairfax County Public Schools’ equity-related efforts.

“Rebuilding of relationships will need to happen,” Meren said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington nixed plans to honor Omeish for supporting the recognition of additional religious holidays in the FCPS calendar. Four other school board members were still honored at the advocacy group’s annual membership meeting on May 20.

“The language Ms. Omeish used in this Tweet is deeply offensive and inflammatory to all who support Israel,” JCRC President Ronald Paul and Executive Director Ron Halber said in a joint statement on the decision. “…It is irresponsible of her to use her public platform to publicly advance controversial political views that target and marginalize Jewish students and their families and divide our community.”

The letter went on to say that conversations about why JCRC found Omeish’s comment offensive were unproductive as she “continued to stoke the flames of division and acrimony” by not removing the tweet or taking “affirmative steps to try to stem the vitriolic, hateful rhetoric on social media triggered by her remarks.”

For her part, Omeish says JCRC’s statement was “a complete mischaracterization” of how she approached their interactions, saying that she “got yelled at on the phone aggressively” and has “been threatened by JCRC multiple times” about her stance on Israel.

“They told me, if you don’t take this down, we will post a statement about you and it’s not going to be pretty,” she said. “They would say things like that to me, and for me, I’m like, look, I respectfully reject the threat. I’m not going to change my position because you’re scaring me.”

Halber and JCRC Associate Director Guila Franklin Siegel disputed Omeish’s characterization of their interactions in a statement to Reston Now:

“We took no pleasure in having to rescind Ms. Omeish’s award. But there is no place for the divisive and offensive language she used in her May 13th Tweet or for her insulting insinuations about the JCRC. We never have and never would threaten anyone. Ms. Omeish stands out among the thousands of elected officials and interfaith leaders from every background who have successfully partnered with the JCRC in nearly a century of community-building. We hope Ms. Omeish undertakes the hard work necessary to understand how her hurtful language impacted members of the Jewish community, including our children in FCPS schools. For the benefit of the entire FCPS community, we hope to be able to work with Ms. Omeish in the future to pursue unity, equity, and mutual respect in Fairfax County.”

Omeish got another opportunity to engage with Jewish leaders, as she promised in a follow-up tweet, at a roundtable convened on May 23.

She has been hosting quarterly roundtables with local faith leaders throughout her school board tenure, and this gathering, which did not include JCRC, was originally scheduled to discuss on how FCPS can accommodate people of different religions.

Rabbi Michael Holzman of the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation says he appreciated that Omeish convened the roundtable, adding that he believes the forum allowed for a more considered discussion of complex issues than what’s possible on social media.

“I think it was a very representative group of leaders,” he said. “They spoke honestly to her about their frustrations with her public statement and respectfully, and I thought it was a good start.”

In an interview with Reston Now a couple of days after the roundtable, Omeish said that if she could get a do-over on her original comment, she would have been “very explicit and clear that my words are not to be used to support or allow any kind of anti-Semitism.”

“We can fight anti-Semitism and oppression of the Palestinians at the same time, and that we all ought to stand together against injustice and hate, regardless of who it is and who it’s done to, regardless of who the victim is and who the oppressor is,” she said.

However, Omeish stands by the underlying goal of her tweet, which she says was to draw attention to the discrimination and violence that Palestinians have experienced, both during the 11-day conflict that concluded with a cease-fire on May 28 and historically, in Israel and the territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

Noting that Human Rights Watch has described Israel’s policies toward Palestinians as consistent with the crime of apartheid, Omeish argues that conflating criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitism too often ends up preventing meaningful conversations.

Community members and organizations that expressed support for her echoed that sentiment, including the advocacy group Fairfax Antiracist Minds, the Virginia Council of Muslim Organizations, and Jewish Voice for Peace Action.

“We regret that her powerful stance has been met with divisive responses that could have unified and educated instead,” Jewish Voice for Peace Action said in a statement on May 26. “We stand in full support of the growing number of elected officials at the national and local levels who are speaking the truth about Israeli oppression of the Palestinians.”

Omeish says she’s particularly frustrated by the criticism that it was inappropriate for her to comment on the Israel-Palestine conflict because of her position on the school board.

“I know a lot of people were criticizing me and saying, this is not related to your job. You don’t do foreign policy, but in fact, we teach it,” she said. “We teach it in history, we teach it in English, we teach it when we cover world religions…Some teachers refuse to touch it because it’s just too controversial, and they don’t know how to facilitate dialogue around it, but that, again, does a disservice to our kids because we put them all into the world unprepared for the reality of these conversations.”

That frustration extends to the rest of the school board, which responded to the controversy with a statement that School Board Chair Ricardy Anderson shared during the board’s May 20 meeting reaffirming FCPS’ commitment to creating a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students and employees.

“We recognize that our students and families are hurting and fearful of what is happening abroad and locally with increased acts of aggression against our Jewish and Muslim communities,” Anderson said. “Fairfax County Public Schools is committed to ensuring that all students and staff are treated with respect and dignity and provided a safe and nurturing environment in which to learn and thrive.”

FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a statement released on May 24 that the school system needs “to be clear that all forms of hate, exclusion, and marginalization are unacceptable” and that it has “a responsibility to ensure that all people are treated with dignity, empathy, and humanity in our schools.”

Omeish, though, believes the school board missed an opportunity to take a “courageous and a clearer leadership role” and “engage in conversation and understand why our perspectives are so different.”

“Every social justice issue at some point in time is confusing, uncomfortable, and too touchy,” Omeish said. “It’s just a matter of getting ahead of the curve and taking the right stance or waiting until public opinion demands that shift, and it looks like my colleagues chose the latter.”

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