Jersey City BOE votes to condemn trustee’s ‘River to the Sea’ comment, want ethics probe


The Jersey City Board of Education (BOE) approved a resolution condemning Trustee Younass Barkouch for shouting “from the River to the Sea” as anti-Semitic and authorized hiring an attorney to further investigate it at last night’s special meeting.

By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View

Many, including Congress, say the phrase is a call for the destruction of the majority Jewish State of Israel located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. During public remarks, Barkouch said that he never meant for it to be taken that way.

“I want to apologize to you guys who don’t know me and misinterpreted it as a call to arms against Israel. That was never my intention. I am very disappointed in assuming the worst in me,” he explained.

“I stand on the fact that saying ‘from the River to the Sea,” ‘free Palestine,’ or ‘Palestine will be free’ is not an anti-Semitic call simply because Congress has passed a resolution. It means nothing.”

At that time, Board President Dejon Morris asked Barkouch, who is Muslim, to start wrapping it up.

“I was offended at being called anti-Semitic. It is something I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned anti-Semitism or any hate. I grew up around Moroccan Jews from the day I was born to the day I came to the United States … There is not a single anti-Semitic fiber in my body!”

Someone called out and Barkouch sought to address the comment, but Morris interjected again.

“It’s your duty to wrap it. In fact, you’re not supposed to be talking to the audience,” Morris stated.

“I am not done,” Barkouch replied.

“You are,” Morris answered.

“There is no policy that allows you to say when I am done speaking,” Barkouch pressed on.

“How much longer is this gonna take?” Morris asked.

“It will take however long I please. You have attempted to smear my name,” Barkouch asserted.

Trustee Afaf Muhammad called a point of order and asked Barkouch to finish so they could move on.

“The phrase was originally the [conservative Israeli] Likud Party’s chant. They have taken that phrase and are calling for the liberation of Palestine. It is not a call for violence. It is a call for peaceful co-existence,” Barkouch noted.

“I truly do apologize. I truly did not mean it that way. Nor would I ever make such a hate-filled statement. I meant it as a call for liberation of the Palestinian people. It was Arab Heritage Month and there was not a single mention of what’s going on in the Middle East. This school board spoke about Ukraine.”

Trustee Noemi Velazquez and Muhammad chimed in that board members should not be taking sides in international conflicts, regardless of the circumstances.

“May I respond?” Barkouch asked.

“Is this your wrap-up?” Morris responded.

“It was never my intention to bring foreign politics to the Board: It was you who made this a bigger issue than it was,” Barkouch argued.

“I find it absolutely hypocritical that off of allegations … articles were written off the complaints of six people. A special board meeting was called. Yet when you, Trustee Morris, made Islamaphobic remarks to the city councilor, who is Palestinian and Muslim, there was no investigation,” he said of Morris’ kerfuffle with Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh at an iftar dinner.

Trustee Christopher Tisdale said this wasn’t the time or place for political discussion or working out each other’s personal differences.

“The facilities they’re being housed in is not up to code. We’re here talking about stuff that has nothing to do with these students. This is insulting,” he added.

“People are way too sensitive today. Everything is not a racist thing. We cannot make Younass Barkouch resign.”

Trustee Paula Jones-Watson commended Barkouch for apologizing and giving context, but still said she felt his actions still violated ethical standards at a minimum.

“It did appear to be very anti-Semitic. Jersey City, as an inclusive and diverse city, embraces all cultures and tries to promote a co-existence peace. Your remarks offended some people,” she claimed.

“It was almost like you incited one group, and another can start inciting this group. We are committed to a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying or any type of hate speech.

Muhammed added that board members should not put their colleagues in a position where they have to play defense.

“I stand up for all children and all humanity. I do call for your resignation because you don’t understand how to follow. That’s also why I voted to take you out of leadership,” she explained.

Trustee Natalia Ioffe said the board has never forced a colleague to resign before.

“That cannot legally happen. The board can take a position. They can make a statement. Or take a vote … on our ethics. Not on international issues,” she noted.

“Our mission does not lie in using students for our personal politics. We are state officials. We cannot ignore what a body of Congress says.

Velazquez said she feels those words are hateful and as a legislative aide at the time, he should have known better.

“You don’t have a problem hurting people. You don’t have a problem being mean. I don’t have the right to ask you to step down. But I wish you had enough shame to do so. Thank you!” she said to applause from the audience.

“Remain respectful,” Morris said to the audience. “Mr. director, whoever that is, escort them out, please. Now! Thank you.”

“Trustee Patel would like to speak,” Barkouch said.

“Then let her ask me!” Morris replied.

“We don’t know our students to fight with one another. We want our students to love one another,” Trustee Alpa Patel said.

Acting School Business Administrator Dr. Dennis Frohnapfel read the resolution condemning Barkouch and noted students repeated it.

“This board condemns such language,” he said.

Frohnapfel said they authorized the hiring of an ethics attorney authorized by all trustees besides Barkouch to pursue ethics charges against him.

“That is absolutely ridiculous. You cannot silence me. You cannot smear my name,” Barkouch yelled out.

“You’ll have your chance,” Velazquez said.

“I would like to see the policy, “Barkouch replied.

“You’re out of order,” Morris stated.

“We’ve listened to the complaints. I was under the impression … the resolution was going to be general,” Tisdale said. He didn’t like that the resolution targeted Barkouch and called for the hiring of outside counsel.

“I am very disappointed in each and every one of you. None of you reached out to me. This is a resolution Congress has passed, and Senate has yet to approve,” Barkouch said.

“ … You cannot tell me how long I can speak. There was no mention of Palestine even though it was Arab Heritage Month. They were more than willing to participate in these chants. You may try to censor me, but it means nothing.”

Morris eventually threatened to have Barkouch removed, claiming he was out of order, as well as that the special meeting

“Do not make me remove you. You are out of order,” Morris declared. “I wanted to wait to get a consensus of the board. We will not tolerate any hate.”

“I’ve spoken to teachers who want to raise money for Palestine. Maybe we can work to start a charity,” Barkouch said.

Morris ignored his remarks and finally called for the vote.

“I am disappointed in each and every one of you for catering to six people but not recognizing 41 speakers for Eid,” Barkouch declared before voting no.

“You’re out of order,” Morris replied.

The resolution ultimately passed 6-2, with Barkouch and Tisdale voting no and Vice President Dr. George Blount absent.

A late venue change prevented many others from speaking, with virtual comment not allowed either, and public comment was also limited to one minute per person.

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  1. The phrase “From the River to the sea.. ” offends our Jewish community which is way larger than 6 people who signed the letter.
    It’s not for this trustee to decide what offends us and what not. He cannot ignore the Congress opinion on this as well.
    He behaved like a child who cannot accept authority and rules and fights any decision that he doesn’t like. He’s just not mature to serve as a trustee.