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Campaign against Arabic school principal- “American dream” turns into “American nightmare”

I’ve been on the road, so apologies for reporting important news a bit late here. On October 16, the New York Times reported this important update on a story we covered about the campaign (which one progressive rabbi called a “high-tech lynching”) against Debbie Almontaser as the head of an Arabic culture charter school in NYC.

Principal of Arabic School Says She Was Forced Out

principalDebbie Almontaser in April. (Diane Bondareff/Associated Press)

Updated, 6:48 p.m. | Debbie Almontaser, who resigned under fire from her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s Arabic-themed school, spoke out publicly for the first time today since her case attracted headlines and protests from opposing sides. Ms. Almontaser, a Yemeni-American with an extensive record of educational and community work in Brooklyn, stepped down on Aug. 10 amid a controversy that erupted after she was quoted defending the use of the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan.

Ms. Almontaser released a prepared statement through her lawyer and later read the statement from the steps of City Hall in a news conference that started soon after 5 p.m. In the statement, she said that she was forced to participate in an interview with The New York Post, that the newspaper misrepresented her views and that city officials then threatened to shut down the academy if she did not resign.

Good evening. My name is Debbie Almontaser. I am the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, which is known as KGIA. Over a two-year period beginning in 2005, I devoted my life to establishing a school that reflected not only my vision, but the ideas of a design team that included other educators, prospective parents, community members, and the Arab American Family Support Center.

In early August of this year, under pressure from The New York Post, The New York Sun, and right-wing bloggers, representatives of the mayor, the chancellor, and New Visions demanded that I resign as KGIA’s principal. They threatened to close down KGIA if I refused. The next day, I submitted my letter of resignation. Because I believe that I am the person to carry forward the mission of KGIA, I have today submitted my application to become the principal of KGIA. I have also asked my lawyer to begin preparing a lawsuit against the D.O.E. for violation of my constitutional rights.

When I first discussed with New Visions for Public Schools the creation of an Arabic dual-language public school in New York City, controversy was far from my mind. I was thrilled to create a unique school that would provide a rigorous regents-based curriculum with Arabic language and cultural studies, and that would equip students for work in such areas as international affairs diplomacy and cross-cultural understanding. As with the more than 60 other dual language programs in the city, KGIA was created to foster multilingual and multicultural education. It was also joining many New York City public schools that use theme-based approaches to inform and enrich curriculum across subject areas. As an Arab-American Muslim, born in Yemen and raised in the U.S., establishing KGIA was my American dream. It turned into an American nightmare.

On Feb. 12, 2007, the Department of Education announced the establishment of KGIA. In the days following, right-wing blogs began spinning KGIA as an Islamist school with a radical extremist jihad principal. And local New York City papers fanned the flames with headlines like: “Holy war! Slope Parents Protest Arabic School Plan,” “A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn,” and “Arabic School Idea Is a Monstrosity.” From the day the school was approved to the day I was forced to resign, The New York Sun plastered my picture on its website with a link to negative articles about KGIA.

Leading the attack was the “Stop the Madrassa Coalition” run by Daniel Pipes, who has made his career fostering hatred of Arabs and Muslims. The coalition conducted a smear campaign against me and the school that was ferocious. Members of the coalition stalked me wherever I went and verbally assaulted me with vicious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments. They suggested that, as an observant Muslim, I was disqualified from leading KGIA, even though the school is rigorously secular, and its namesake, Khalil Gibran, was a Lebanese Christian. To stir up anti-Arab prejudice, they constantly referred to me by my Arabic name, a name that I do not use professionally. They even created and circulated a YouTube clip depicting me as a radical Islamist.

Then in early August, The New York Post and the Stop the Madrassa Coalition tried to connect me to T-shirts made by a youth organization called Arab Women in the Arts and Media. The T-shirts said, “Intifada NYC.” Post reporters aggressively sought my comment. Because the T-shirts had nothing to do with me or KGIA, I saw no reason to discuss the issue with the media. I agreed to an interview with a reporter from The Post at the D.O.E.’s insistence. During the interview, the reporter asked about the Arabic origin of the word “intifada.” I told him that the root word from which the word intifada originates means “shake off” and that the word intifada has different meanings for different people, but certainly for many, given its association with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, it implied violence. I reiterated that I would never affiliate myself with an individual or organization that would condone violence in any shape, way, or form. In response to a further question, I expressed the belief that the teenage girls of AWAAM did not mean to promote a “Gaza-style uprising” in New York City.

Although The Post story distorted my words, it accurately reflected my view that I do not condone violence. That should have been the end of the matter. D.O.E. officials should simply have said that it was clear that neither I nor KGIA had any connection to the T-shirts. They should have pointed out that I had devoted my entire adult life to the peaceful resolution of conflict and to building bridges between ethnic and religious communities. In other words, they should have said that the attacks upon me were utterly baseless. Instead, they forced me to issue an apology for what I said. And when the storm of hate continued, they forced me to resign.

In closing, permit me to explain why I am speaking out at this time. While I have been the victim of a serious injustice, the far larger offense has been to the Arab and Muslim communities of New York City. In the years since 9/11, our communities have been the object of the most vile and hateful attacks. The attacks on me are part of a larger campaign to intimidate and silence marginalized communities. Among other strategies, the right-wing is trying to get people from other communities to view Arabs and Muslims as threats to their safety and security. As a result, well-meaning people sometimes act out of fear—not just a knee-jerk anti-Arab, anti-Muslim response, but the fear that, if they do not succumb to right-wing pressure, they too will become targets.

Those seeking to harm our communities would like nothing more than for me to remain silent in response to their hate. For the sake of the Arab and Muslim communities and for all marginalized communities, for the sake of the families of KGIA, and for the sake of all of us committed to creating a society that we can be proud to leave to future generations, I stand here today to say that they will not prevail. I will continue to stand against division, intimidation and hatred; I will stand for a society based on mutual respect and understanding and dignity for all our communities. These are values to which I have devoted my entire adult life and career.

I am applying to be the principal of KGIA because, as its founding principal and the person who envisioned the school, I believe I am the person most qualified to be its educational leader. Throughout the planning process, I worked with a wonderful and devoted design team comprised of educators, parents, students, and community members. I would like to continue that work and to build KGIA into a model dual language school that, to quote KGIA’s mission statement, “helps students of all backgrounds learn about the world” and fosters in them “an understanding of different cultures, a love of learning, and desire for excellence in all of its students.”

Ms. Almontaser’s resignation came amid the treacherous ethnic and ideological currents of New York City politics. Some protesters have rallied in her defense and demanded that she be reinstated.

David Cantor, a spokesman for the Department of Education, responded to Ms. Almontaser’s account with the following statement:

In August, Ms. Almontaser said she resigned as principal from Khalil Gibran International Academy to protect the stability of the school and give it “the full opportunity to flourish.” The Chancellor agreed with her decision, accepted her resignation, and now considers the matter closed.

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