Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Chief: Principal Gone, Furor Lingers

Arabic School Controversy


A new Arabic dual-language school is still scheduled to open in September after replacing its embattled founding Principal.

THE POWER OF WORDS: Mayor Bloomberg and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten both contended that a defense of t-shirts bearing the word 'Intifada' - which is often associated with the violent rebellion by Palestinians against Israel - warranted the departure of the founding Principal of a new Arabic school. 'She's not all that media-savvy,' the Mayor said of Debbie Almontaser, 'and she tried to explain a word rather than just condemn.'
Debbie Almontaser, who is a Muslim of Yemeni descent and fluent in Arabic, was forced to resign after she explained the word "intifada'' - commonly used in the context of the Palestinian rebellion against Israel - as meaning "shaking off." She was replaced by a white Jewish Principal who does not speak Arabic.

UFT Joined Criticism

Ms. Almontaser attracted national media attention and criticism after she declined to condemn a t-shirt created by a young Arab women's group that displayed the words "NYC Intifada." Ms. Almontaser had no connection to the group, but after her comments were criticized by Mayor Bloomberg, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and the editorial boards of several newspapers, she stepped down from her post.

The Chief-Leader/Michel Friang

POLITICAL WITCH HUNT: UFT chapter leader Steve Quester argues that former Khalil Gibran Academy Principal Debbie Almontaser was unfairly driven from her post by people who didn't want to see the Arabic dual-language school open. He believes that her response about a t-shirt with the words "NYC Intifada" was deliberately taken out of context. 'Her comments were coming out of a level of political and cultural knowledge that the people attacking her don't have and don't want to have,' he said.

Danielle Salzberg, a former Teacher and Assistant Principal who has been working on the school project at New Visions for Public Schools, will take her place. Ms. Almontaser will continue working for the school system but will have no connection to the Khalil Gibran Academy, scheduled to welcome its first 6th grade class on Sept. 4.

While public defense of Ms. Almontaser has been muted, some Teachers on list serves and blogs have expressed dismay that the well-respected educator was forced out, arguing that she was a casualty of a well-orchestrated xenophobic campaign against the school that pre-dated her remarks.

The comments that caused the uproar first appeared in the New York Post after reporters asked her to comment on the t-shirts they saw at a street fair, which were created by Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM).

"The word [intifada] basically means 'shaking off.' That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic," Ms. Almontaser told the Post. "I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City.

'Shaking Off Oppression'

"I think it's pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society ... and shaking off oppression," she added.

Her comments were followed by criticism from the Mayor, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, several politicians, a whirlwind of activity on conservative Web sites and a planned Aug. 12 protest by Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

Ms. Weingarten wrote a letter to the Post after the paper ran an editorial calling for Ms. Almontaser's dismissal. "It is very disturbing to read about Almontaser defending the use of the term 'Intifada NYC,' and I agree wholeheartedly with your editorial denouncing the practice ... While the city teachers' union initially took an open-minded approach to this school, both parents and teachers have every right to be concerned about children attending a school run by someone who doesn't instinctively denounce campaigns or ideas tied to violence."

Regrets Rationalization

Ms. Almontaser apologized the next day. "The word 'intifada' is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan," she said in a statement. "I regret suggesting otherwise. By minimizing the word's historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me."

But calls for her dismissal continued and she stepped down on Aug. 10. In her resignation letter, she wrote, "The days that I have spent establishing the Academy have been some of the best of my life - I have never seen as talented a group of Teachers and other staff as we assembled to lead this school."

She stated that she believed she had been attacked because of her religion and that the school's opponents' "intolerant and hateful tone has come to frighten some of the parents and incoming students. I have grown increasingly concerned that these few outsiders will disrupt the community of learning when the Academy opens its doors on September 4th. Therefore, I have decided to step aside to give the Academy and its dedicated staff the full opportunity to flourish without these unwarranted attacks."

Mayor: Right Move

Mr. Bloomberg and DOE officials welcomed her resignation. "She got a question, she's not all that media-savvy maybe, and she tried to explain a word rather than just condemn," said the Mayor at an Aug. 13 press conference. "I think she felt that she had become the focus of - rather than having the school the focus, so today she submitted her resignation, which is nice of her to do. I appreciate all her service, and I think she's right to do so."

A spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators said President Ernie Logan had no comment on Ms. Almontaser's ouster.

But not all educators were pleased with the result. "The whole t-shirt thing was a red herring," said Steve Quester, a 20-year Teacher who is the chapter leader at P.S. 372.

A Religious Crusade

He noted the campaign against the school, begun in March by right-wing author Daniel Pipes. In June, a group of New Yorkers launched the "Stop the Madrassa" coalition. The word madrassa literally means school in Arabic, but it is used in the U.S. to refer to religious Muslim schools, often with the implication that terrorism is taught to the children.

Mr. Quester said that as an educator, Ms. Almontaser was trying not to feed into stereotypes when she explained the meaning of the word intifada, but that the question was a set-up by the Post reporters. "The choice was: throw the girls from AWAAM under a bus, or we're going to get you," he said.

Mr. Quester said he was disappointed that his union didn't step up to defend Ms. Almontaser.

"I knew intifada meant shaking off; that comes from being in the Middle East peace movement," said Mr. Quester. "Her comments were coming out of a level of political and cultural knowledge that the people attacking her don't have and don't want to have."

History of Reaching Out

Ms. Almontaser, who is observant and wears the hijab, is a former Teacher and has a long history of interdenominational activism. She was a member of the Brooklyn Dialogue Project, a group of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who met on a monthly basis to discuss issues of concern to their communities. In the weeks after 9/11, Ms. Almontaser was asked by several ministers and rabbis to speak at city synagogues and churches on behalf of the Arab and Muslim communities.

Her son had joined the U.S. Army three years prior to 9/11, and he was called into service to stand guard at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attacks. That fall, she wrote in a widely circulated essay, "We must get to know each other by speaking to one another. We need to make sure that everyone's voice is heard rather than silenced, to overcome our fears."

Some commentators have characterized the appointment of Ms. Salzberg to head the Gibran Academy as a smart strategic move to fend off further criticism. DOE officials have repeatedly said they are committed to opening the school. Some in the Arab community have condemned the replacement of an Arab leader with a white Jewish woman as giving in to racism.

'Could Be an Issue'

Lili Brown, the vice president of external affairs at New Visions said she was aware in advance that the school would face challenges. She said she had confidence in Ms. Salzberg's ability. "If people make [her race] an issue," she said, "it will become an issue."

Meanwhile, the 44 students who have signed up to go to the school, four of whom speak Arabic and 75 percent of whom are black, began meeting the school's staff last week. One parent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she was shaken by the events, but believed in the mission of the school. She said she had long been a fan of Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-Christian poet and writer after whom the school is named. She recited one of her favorite quotes from his work that she said inspired her: "Your neighbor is your other self dwelling behind a wall. In understanding all walls shall fall down."

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