Victory for campaign to shut down Arabic culture school: principal quits over t-shirt brouhaha

Anti-Islamist groups and blogs, and the New York Post, the tabloid best known for its Page Six gossip column, fueled a firestorm this week against a longtime public school teacher who started an Arabic culture public school in NY. The stormy episode in the life of the Khalil Gibran International Academy ended today when the teacher-turned-principal Debbie Almontaser released this statement:

“This morning I tendered my resignation to Chancellor Klein, which he accepted. I became convinced yesterday that this week’s headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran International Academy, even though I apologized.”

Today the NYT reports in Under Fire, Arabic-Themed School Principal Resigns

The principal of a new Arabic-themed public school in Brooklyn resigned under pressure today, days after she was quoted defending the use of the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan.

Intifada NYC

Debbie Almontaser, a veteran public school teacher, was hired to lead the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a middle school that was scheduled to open this fall. An immediate replacement was not announced, and Ms. Almontaser’s abrupt exit left the future of the school in question.

Her remarks were in response to questions from The New York Post over the phrase “Intifada NYC,” which was printed on T-shirts sold by Arab Women Active in Art and Media, a Brooklyn-based organization that the Anti-Defamation League asserts is linked to Hamas. The Post reported that Ms. Almontaser is a board member of the Saba Association of American Yemenis, which shares office space with the women’s group. Here is The Post’s account of Ms. Almontaser’s comments:

“The word [intifada] basically means ’shaking off.’ That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic,” she said.

“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.

“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.”

Ms. Almontaser issued an apology the next day, saying that she regretted her remarks. “By minimizing the word’s historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence,” she said in a statement.

But the apology was followed by criticism from Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. Ms. Weingarten stopped short of calling for Ms. Almontaser’s resignation, but called the word intifada “something that ought to be denounced, not explained away.”

(Meanwhile, The Post excoriated Ms. Almontaser in editorials on Tuesday and today. The Post also reported today that only six Arabic-speaking students have signed up to attend the school, which is to open next month. The school, which was expected to have about 60 students, was to share space with the Brooklyn High School of the Arts and the Math and Science Exploratory School in Boerum Hill.)

The Associated Press reports

The tabloid asserted the shirts had a subversive meaning: “The inflammatory tees boldly declare ‘Intifada NYC’ _ apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple.”

But organized groups determined to keep the school from opening had already declared the school would “Function As Jihad Recruitment Center.”

Stop the Madrassa, which applauded today’s announcement, has been working for some time with media outlets and blogs to stop the school. The Stop the Madrassa group includes members of anti-Islamist groups with names like the Center for Vigilant Freedom, Gathering of Eagles, and the United American Committee,a group dedicated to fighting the “enemy within”, whose media-savvy NY chair Pamela Hall was cited in the NY Post as “a Manhattan mom opposed to the academy on the grounds that it violates separation of church and state.”

The Associated Press reports

A number of conservative Web sites, blogs and other publications have come out against the school. Some have questioned Almontaser’s character and tried to paint her as a radical Muslim with a dangerous agenda.

She has said the school will be teaching culture, not religion. The academy, named after the famed Lebanese-American Christian poet who promoted peace, would be one of a few nationwide that incorporate the Arabic language and culture.

New York’s right wing Jewish Press opined:

The report in the New York Post that burkha-clad Dhabah Almontaser (dubbed “Debbie” by the media), principal of the Khalil Gibran Academy – the soon-to-be-opened Arabic-themed public school – sees no problem with students wearing T-shirts with the imprint “Intifada NYC” confirmed the concerns many of us expressed when plans for the controversial school were announced earlier this year by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Members of the editorial board continued:

As the Post succinctly put it, either “Debbie” “is a fool or she thinks New Yorkers are morons.” Actually, we suspect “Debbie” brings to her new assignment a certain mindset that is not all that remarkable given the context of her training and world outlook. This episode says as much about the ill-conceived project of having a public school dedicated to teaching Arab culture with courses taught in Arabic as it says about Ms. Almontaser personally.

Can we ignore the sad experience on the college and university level where departments dedicated to Arabic studies and culture over time morphed into hotbeds of anti-West radicalism?