Complaint says Muslim Arab American teacher was discriminated against after put on leave over pro-Palestinian phrase in email

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has filed a discrimination complaint on behalf of a Black Muslim Arab American teacher in Maryland, who was placed on administrative leave for her email signature, which included a controversial phrase supporting Palestinian rights.

Hajur El-Haggan, a middle school math teacher employed by the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) since 2015, was informed November 20 by the principal at Argyle Middle School the county was placing her on immediate leave because her email signature expressed political and personal views, says the complaint filed Wednesday.

El-Haggan’s email signature included the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” according to the complaint, which described it as “a call for Palestinian freedom, dignity, and self-determination. That means the ability to exist and move within the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.”

The slogan refers to Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza being restricted by Israel in their movements from city to city, entering Israel, and visiting Jerusalem’s holy sites, the complaint says.

The Anti-Defamation League and other mainstream Jewish groups have accused the slogan of being “antisemitic” and a “rallying cry (that) has long been used by anti-Israel voices, including supporters of terrorist organizations such as Hamas.”

The phrase has come under recent scrutiny for its use at pro-Palestinian rallies amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, and at least one US House member has been heavily criticized by colleagues for saying it.

The school district’s policy for email best practices and other digital communications is posted on its website and asks employees to maintain professional email signatures and abstain from “special stationery, quotations or sayings as part of or following an employee’s email signature.”

The complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says, “Ms. El-Haggan was informed that including any political or non-political quotes in an email signature was against the MCPS Employee Code of Conduct, yet this policy was never enforced against any of Ms. El-Haggan’s colleagues who participated in similar conduct.”

The complaint includes photos and screenshots of other email signatures from teachers at the school, including political and social justice quotes and links in support of topics such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights.

CAIR held a news conference in front of the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education with El-Haggan to announce the filing of the complaint.

“It is clear that Ms. El-Haggan was treated very different from her non-Muslim, non-Arab colleagues who engage in the same conduct,” Rawda Fawaz, El-Haggan’s attorney, said Friday.

El-Haggan said during the news conference she offered to remove the saying from her signature, but the county denied the offer and said her administrative leave was still in effect.

She says the county still has not reached out to her, after 18 days, even though she was told someone from the county would contact her.

MCPS told CNN by email Friday El-Haggan remains on administrative leave “pending an investigation” and characterized the situation only as “a personnel matter,” according to district communications director Christopher Cram.

‘Every moment I am not in the classroom, it breaks my heart’

At Friday’s news conference, El-Haggan spoke while wearing a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian scarf, and pins depicting the Palestinian flag while a group of people stood behind her holding signs reading, “protect our teachers” and “defend free speech.”

“With the recent events in Gaza and in Palestine, I have become an advocate for their (Palestinians’) peace and for their freedom,” El-Haggan said. “It is intrinsically tied to the core of who I am as a Muslim and as an Arab, as it is for many Muslims and Arabs.”

El-Haggan was referring to the mounting humanitarian crisis in Gaza where – in response to Hamas’ attack that killed 1,200 people – Israel has launched a siege and war that has killed over 17,000 Palestinians, 70% of whom are women and children, according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza.

Evie Frankl, a member of pro-Palestinian organization Jewish Voice for Peace, spoke at the news conference and said El-Haggan is being discriminated against for expressing “support for Palestinians, who are suffering a devastating ongoing war that is haunting every sentient being in the world who is paying attention.”

Frankl, who says she is a daughter of Holocaust refugees and granddaughter of people murdered in concentration camps, also questioned why support “for Palestinian lives (is) more controversial than support for Black lives, Jewish lives, women’s lives?”

El-Haggan said her administration team, co-workers, and school have been “so incredibly supportive” and claims the “discrimination is coming from the county.”

“I have spent and given my entire life to be an educator. Every morning I wake up excited to have the opportunity to help my students feel seen, to feel loved, heard and appreciated. I help them feel safe, and I help them know that they belong. Every moment I am not in the classroom, it breaks my heart,” El-Haggan said, her voice breaking.

The complaint says El-Haggan was discriminated against on the basis of her race and religion, among other factors, and says the county’s actions violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act.

The complaint also states, “until the present situation with Ms. El-Haggan, MCPS had never taken adverse action against any other employee who chose to include political speech in their email signature. Ms. El-Haggan was informed that including any political or non-political quotes in an email signature was against the MCPS Employee Code of Conduct, yet this policy was never enforced against any of Ms. El-Haggan’s colleagues who participated in similar conduct.”

CAIR says they have received more than 200 bias incident reports from Muslims and Arabs in Maryland since October 7, with many of the incidents involving discrimination against people voicing support for Palestinians.

El-Haggan said, “I’m asking the county to take steps to ensure that Arab and Muslim educators like myself, are protected from discrimination. But most importantly, I’m asking the county to allow me to go back to teaching my students because that’s what a teacher ever wants to do.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described CAIR’s filing. It was an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.

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