Sarah Garland reports in the New York Sun about Brooklyn's soon-to-be-established Khalil Gibran International Academy:
A new public secondary school that is to include Middle Eastern studies in its curriculum will focus on culture, not the region's political conflicts, Depgrartment of Education officials said yesterday. "The school will not be a vehicle for political ideology," a Department of Education spokesman, David Cantor, said of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, due to open this September in Brooklyn.ridge
As for the sorts of topics the school will cover, the CEO of the Office of New Schools, Garth Harries, gave as an example a math lesson plan that would mention that an Arabic mathematician invented the concept of zero. "It's going to follow Department of Education regulations," the director of the Arab-American Family Support Center, Lena Alhusseini, who helped design the school, said. "It's going to be exactly like all the schools in the city, the same curriculum."
My take on the school: In principle it is a great idea – the United States needs more Arabic-speakers. In practice, however, Arabic instruction is heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands, as I explain in the accompanying weblog entry, "The Arabist and Islamist Baggage of Arabic Language Instruction."
The Sun article additionally indicates that the KGIA will serve as a place to make Arab students feel at home. "While Khalil Gibran's organizers say the school's main focus is academic, they also said the school could help to integrate Arab families into New York society by providing the school community with health services, counseling, youth leadership development, and English as a second language classes for parents." The article quotes Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor at Brooklyn College and co-editor of The Edward Said Reader, saying that "It's not uncommon for Arab students to feel isolated — I think it's seen as a foothold." That the school is in large part intended for native Arabic-speakers to learn English is supported by the "English Language Learner Grants" for which it is eligible. The school sounds like a place to indulge Arab grievances and support Arab immigrants. It worries me that the school's purpose is not really to teach Arabic to non-Arabs.
For these reasons, an Arabic-language school in New York needs to be held under special scrutiny.
But political correctness will make such scrutiny impossible. One can see the kernel of this denial in the statement by John Ali-Habib, vice chairman of Brooklyn's Republican Party and a member of the school's planning committee: "There's an Asian school opening in Flushing. It's the same thing." But it's precisely not the same thing.
Therefore, unless such controls are clearly put in place, I am opposed to the opening of this school. (March 7, 2007)
Mar. 8, 2007 update: For the larger, national context of KGIA, see a weblog entry begun today, "Other Taxpayer-Funded American Madrassas."
Mar. 10, 2007 update:
Dhabah ( "Debbie") Almontaser, principal-designate of New York City's Khalil Gibran International Academy.
It turns out that my abstract concern has real substance to it. Beila Rabinowitz
establishes that the school's principal, Dhabah (or "Debbie") Almontaser received an award from the Council on American-Islamic Relations
(CAIR) and that the school was designed in part by the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee
(ADC). Need one say more? CAIR is an Islamist group that is on the enemy's side in the war on terror while ADC includes a motley collection of leftist and Islamist extremists. Their association with this school confirms my worries about it. I again call for it not to be opened.
Mar. 16, 2007 update: (1) A number of readers have pointed out, correctly, that the above excerpt includes a mistake in it; contrary to Garith Harries, no "Arabic mathematician invented the concept of zero." Zero was an Indian invention that the Arabs adopted. As a reader puts it, "Harries really let the cat out of the bag, revealing that the new school with be ethnic cheerleading at its worst." Another reason not to establish this school. (2) John Abi-Habib has written me to indicate that the Sun misreported the spelling of his name.
Apr. 13, 2007 update: In "Khalil Gibran School - A Jihad Grows in Brooklyn," Beila Rabinowitz and William A. Mayer provide extensive information on "the players within the Arabic community who are KGIA's primary advocates and who will be intimately involved in designing and running it." Specifically, they look in detail at four individuals – Dhabah ( "Debbie") Almontaser, Emira Habiby-Browne, Ahmad Jaber, Assad Jebara – and two organizations (the Arab American Family Support Center and Alwan for the Arts). The authors term the KGIA a "program built on a series of lies, whose only function will be to divide" and predict that it will be a "government-funded madrassah."
Apr. 14, 2007 update
Logo of the Khalil Gibran International Academy.
: Almontaser replies to my critique that in practice, "Arabic instruction is heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands" in an Associated Press article, "Plans for NYC Arabic school draw protests, 'jihad' labels
"Being that we are a public school, we certainly are not going to be teaching religion," said Almontaser, 39. "Islam does not have a culture. Islam is a religion." How will the school teach about sensitive topics such as colonialism and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis? "Teachers are going to be expected to provide students with multiple perspectives on whatever the issue is," Almontaser said. "Students will, through the critical-thinking skills that they will develop, make informed decisions on the perspective that they want to believe. It's going to be quite difficult to do, but that is a priority."
Apr. 16, 2007 update: A later version of the same AP story, now titled "Proposed NYC Public School Causes Stir," provides some key differences. (1) Almontaser now asserts that the school will teach the Arab-Israeli conflict, confirming my concern above:
"Being that we are a public school, we certainly are not going to be teaching religion," said Almontaser, 39. "Islam does not have a culture. Islam is a religion." She said the school won't shy away from sensitive topics such as colonialism and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. "Teachers are going to be expected to provide students with multiple perspectives on whatever the issue is," Almontaser said. "Students will, through the critical-thinking skills that they will develop, make informed decisions on the perspective that they want to believe."
(2) The reporter, Nahal Toosi, adds that the school "would be one of a few nationwide that incorporate the Arabic language and Islamic culture." Note the quiet insertion of Islamic culture, however, just as I predicted.
Also today, William A. Mayer and Beila Rabinowitz provide three important new pieces of information about principal-designate Dhabah Almontaser.
First, during the trial of Shahawar Matin Siraj for attempting to blow up the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan, a case that relied on informants, New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly met with a group of 150 Muslims to hear their "concerns about issues of public safety." According to a New York Times report on the meeting: "Debbie Almontaser, a board member of a Muslim women's organization [Women In Islam, Inc.], told Mr. Kelly that she was saddened that the police had resorted to 'F.B.I. tactics,' and that she thought this was polarizing the Muslim community. Applause swept the room." As Mayer and Rabinowitz note, "In Almontaser's insular world, preventing a crime that could have killed hundreds is viewed as 'polarizing.'"
Principal-designate Dhabah Almontaser before her makeover.
Second, Almontaser denies that Arab Muslims carried out the 9/11 atrocities
, telling sixth-graders she taught: "I don't recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims."
Third, Almontaser likened the American response to 9/11 to that of a totalitarian regime: "Right here in this community ...we stated to see people literally disappearing. ... The police came and took them in the middle of the night and we were, like, 'What is going on?'"
In a separate posting, Beila Rabinowitz points out Almontaser's fashion evolution of late, from frumpy cowl to chic headscarf with jewelry. Wonder why she'd do that.
Comment: Making Almontaser the principal of KGIA virtually guarantees troubles ahead.
Apr. 24, 2007 update: I have written a column on this subject, "A Madrasa Grows in Brooklyn," that recapitulates in briefer form the information and analysis presented here.
Apr. 28, 2007 update: In a comment on this article on the New York Sun site, one of the members of the KGIA Advisory Council, Daniel Meeter, helpfully provides a list of that council's makeup:
- Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, Old First Reformed Church
- Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts, Abyssinian Baptist Church
- Rev. Dr. Charles H. Straut Jr., The Riverside Church
- Rev. Khader N. El-Yateem, Salem Arabic Lutheran Church
- Rabbi Andy Backman, Congregation Beth Elohim
- Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, Rabbis for Human Rights
- Rabbi Micah Kelber, The Bay Ridge Jewish Center
- Lisel Burns, Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture
- Imam Talib Abdul-Rashid, Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, Harlem
- Imam Shamsi Ali, 96th St. Mosque, Manhattan
- Imam Khalid Latif, Chaplain, NYPD
Comment: If the KGIA has no religious content, then why is every one of its advisory council members a reverend, rabbi, or imam, plus one Ethical Culture representative? Is this not a blatant contradiction?
May 4, 2007 update: Almontaser claims not to be upset by objections to the KGIA: "Quite frankly, I don't let it bother me. I don't lose sleep over it. My main objective is the opening of the school." This quote comes in a puff piece by Julie Bosman in the New York Times, "Plan for Arabic School in Brooklyn Spurs Protests," where the debate over KGIA is deemed "a test of tolerance — and its limits — in post-9/11, multiethnic New York." As for Almontaser, Bosman describes her as someone who "who organized peace rallies and urged tolerance after the attacks of Sept. 11" and "known as a moderate active in interfaith groups," then provides many quotes in her favor. The criticism of her is called "preposterous," "heartbreaking," and" outrageous."
The article does contain some news, specifically:
- The New York City school chancellor, Joel I. Klein, "is considering other locations for the school, or even postponing the opening for a year. … Since a location has not been confirmed yet, the Education Department has not been able to accept applications formally. At this point in the year, most fifth graders already know where they will be attending sixth grade in the fall."
- The school is to enroll 81 students for the 2007-08 school year in the sixth grade only.
- "Almontaser said she planned a curriculum that was not religion-based, and that would include the history and contributions of the Arab people." Comment: "include the history and contributions of the Arab people" suggests can be benign or not; again, this school requires special supervision.
And I am quoted in this article saying, "What you find is that the materials that are included in an Arabic curriculum have a natural tendency to promote Islam."
May 5, 2007 update: The KGIA was supposed to share a building with a Brooklyn elementary school, PS 282 in Park Slope, but the parents there all along protested this intrusion on the grounds that younger children should not be mixed with older ones. News comes today that the parents got their way and the Department of Education has dropped plans for the shared building idea, conceding that "Siting the Khalil Gibran International Academy at the school would be detrimental to its core academic programs." But the department insists this decision is just logistical and unrelated to the controversy over the school's very existence, and that it remains committed to opening the school.
Almontaser was quoted saying that the parents' concerns were "valid" and she was not disappointed by the decision. She also says religion is not part of the KGIA curriculum but the Arabs' culture, history, and "contributions" are. "With any language that you learn you need to learn about the people and their customs and their history to develop effectively in that language, in order not to offend people when speaking the language." She has to say this, for Joel Klein a few days earlier stated that "If any school became a religious school, as some people say Khalil Gibran would be, … I would shut it down. I promise you that."
In response to Militant Islam Monitor's noting of Almontaser's fashion changes (see Apr. 16, 2007 update, above), Almontaser says, "I have to say that I'm really flattered. I'm flattered that there's so much attention being paid to me, especially about how I dress."
Comment: How does Klein reconcile the completely religious nature of KGIA's advisory council (see the Apr. 28, 2007 update above) with his assertion now that "If any school became a religious school, as some people say Khalil Gibran would be, … I would shut it down"?
May 6, 2007 update: In a puff piece on the KGIA (complete with nasty asides about the New York Sun coverage of this issue), the International Herald Tribune paraphrases Melanie Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education saying that the KGIA "will follow a college preparatory program, which involves a rather closely controlled course of study with required testing of results. So even if the new school has, say, the history of the Middle East taught in Arabic, it will most likely not play host to fanatics using the Koran to justify the cult of death." In a quote, Meyer then reiterates Klein's promise (see the May 5, 2007 update, above): "This school is not a tool for political or religious ideology, and we'll close it if it shows any indication that that's what it will become."
Also curious is this understanding of KGIA's purpose by the IHT article's author, Richard Bernstein: "Most people who knew about it seemed to see it as a reasonable gesture to an Arab immigrant community that often feels estranged from the surrounding American society." For that matter, Bosman in the New York Times (see the May 4, 2007 update, above) refers to KGIA as "conceived as a public embrace of New York City's growing Arab population and of internationalism." Foolish me – I thought the school was about Arabic-language instruction, when it seems really to be about a good-will gesture to Arabic-speakers.
May 7, 2007 update: Garth Harries, the chief executive of the "Office of New Schools" at New York City's Department of Education, replied to one letter writer protesting the KGIA thus:
Subj: Khalil Gibran International Academy
Dear XX -
Thank you for writing Chancellor Klein regarding the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) and forwarding the message that you sent to Mayor Bloomberg. They have asked me to respond on their behalf.
KGIA is opening in partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group that has helped create dozens of new small schools in recent years, and the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC), a Brooklyn secular social service agency. The Khalil Gibran International Academy will be located in Brooklyn, serving grades 6 to 12, and will offer a challenging multicultural curriculum through standard and project-based learning. The program integrates intensive Arabic language instruction and the study of Middle Eastern history and historical figures to enliven learning across all subject areas. The goal is to prepare students for college and successful careers, and to foster an understanding of different cultures, a love of learning, and desire for excellence in all of its students. Here are some key points about the school:
- KGIA is a non-religious New York City public school. It is not a vehicle for political or religious ideology and if the school is used this way, we will close it.
- KGIA will follow New York City standard, non-screened enrollment policy and will serve students from diverse backgrounds, Arab and non-Arab alike.
- KGIA will adhere to all State and City educational standards.
- KGIA is not the first public school to teach Arabic; Fort Hamilton High School and Stuyvesant High School also teach Arabic
- New York City offers many other public school programs with cultural themes, including Asian studies and Latin American studies. New York City also has over 60 dual language programs, focusing on languages including Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Chinese.
In New York City, many public schools use themed-based approaches that help to inform and enrich curriculum across subject areas. KGIA resembles other second language intensive schools, like Shuang Wen Academy, which emphasize Chinese language and culture. KGIA is one such school with an Arabic language and Middle Eastern culture theme. KGIA may apply its theme by, for example, studying the ancient Arab approach to astronomy in science classes or studying the history of Arab instruments or tapestries in music and art classes.
Through its partnership with its lead partner, AAFSC, KGIA will offer students and their families a range of services including adult ESL, parenting classes, and leadership programs for youth. The school will also offer programs in conflict resolution, supported by Educators for Social Responsibility and the Tenanbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, two non-profit organizations specializing in this area.
Your letter suggested that the school should include teachers from other faiths. While teachers are still being hired for the school, the planning team for the school included people from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths and many cultural backgrounds, including Caribbean-, Hispanic-, Chinese-, Syrian-Jewish-, and Arab-Americans. As the school hires teachers, there can be no discrimination based on applicants' race, ethnicity or religion. Indeed the school hopes to have a diverse staff, similar to the planning team.
The Arabic curriculum will be developed by the school's multi-cultural staff and will be taught by staff from the Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC), with a New York State certified teacher in the classroom. KGIA will rely on their partner for Arabic language teachers because of a shortage of state certified Arabic teachers. As the school grows to capacity, the principal hopes to add Hebrew instruction to the elective course offerings at the school.
In addition, the leader of the school has participated in the A World of Difference training with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Both the ADL and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) have worked with the school leader and expressed their support for her.
Your letter also raised concern about the AAFSC and their sources of funding. The AAFSC is a secular social service agency with a long track record of helping New Yorkers. According to their website, the AAFSC receives major funding from
- New York City Administration for Children's Services (ACS)
- New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD)
- New York State Office of Family and Children's Services
- Daphne Foundation
- Independence Community Foundation
- Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services
- Marilyn M. Simpson Charitable Trust
- National Network of Arab-American Communities
- New York Community Trust
- New York Foundation
- South Brooklyn Legal Services
- Taproot Foundation
- William T. Grant Foundation
- Community Resource Exchange
Thank you again for writing to the Chancellor.
Office of New Schools
May 8, 2007 update: In an editorial, "Brooklyn Arabic School," the New York Sun reveals another tidbit about Almontaser: "When one of our reporters asked Ms. Almontaser whether she considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist organizations and who she thinks was behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she declined to answer, suggesting she shouldn't be singled out for such questions."
May 9, 2007 update: The city Department of Education announced that it has found a location for the KGIA for the next two years. It will open doors at 345 Dean Street, in the same building as two other schools, the Brooklyn High School of the Arts and the Math & Science Exploratory School, and that's that: "This is not a tentative decision," said David Cantor, department spokesman. "The school will open at this site in September."
May 15, 2007 update: At a PTA meeting to discuss KGIA's landing at 345 Dean Street, what are described as "a few outside agitators aiming to stir alarm about Khalil Gibran's focus on Arabic culture" raised some good questions about the projected school, according to an account at InsideSchools.org:
"Will the school teach Sharia law?" one attendee asked, referring to Islamic law. A parent shouted out, "Will Israel be on the maps?" "It's not about space, it's about indoctrination," shouted another.
Comment: The report implies that these "disrespectful" questions were brushed aside and not replied to.
May 16, 2007 update: Looking at "an optional application for all 5th grade students in Brooklyn who are interested in applying to a New Middle School" titled "The New York City Department of Education 2007-2008 Middle School Application for New Brooklyn Schools Accepting 6th Graders," I note that today is the deadline for applying to the Khalil Gibran International Academy. One has to wonder how many parents of 5th graders have enrolled their children in a school whose location, the form indicates, is yet unknown ("Address To Be Announced"). An inquiry to "Enrollment Center - Region 8" about late applications indicates that maybe one a day late will be accepted.
May 19, 2007 update: In an interview, "Almontaser speaks! Gibran school principal stares down her critics," the KGIA principal-designate is asked about me by the left-wing Brooklyn Paper and replies:
Q: What do you say to conservative critics like Daniel Pipes, who called Arabic language instruction "inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage?"
A: He studied the Arabic language as a Middle Eastern historian and he seems to have done really well at still maintaining his roots and his identity. And I'm confident that we will be able to teach students Arabic as a second language and make sure they maintain their identity as he has.
Comment: Clever reply but, as I noted in 2000 on my website, "Wilson Bishai and Annemarie Schimmel were my Arabic teachers." Neither of them were pan-Arabists or Islamists.
May 22, 2007 update: I published today a second column on the Khalil Gibran International Academy, "The Travails of Brooklyn's Arabic Academy." It focuses on the school's advisory board and on parental objections to the school.
June 8, 2007 update: In an article, "New York is hell for young Osama," Chris Reiter of Reuters decries the circumstances of Osama Al-Najjar, 16, a New Yorker. After years of being taunted as "bin Laden" and "terrorist" at school, he attempted suicide in July 2006. Along the way, Reiter mentions the KGIA in the context of a school he could have gone to and been treated better, then notes that by getting started only for sixth graders in 2007, "opens too late for Osama."
Comment: This sort of attitude suggests that the KGIA is seen not as a place to teach the Arabic language but as a shelter for Arab-Americans from bias. Its goals appear more about therapy than security.
June 21, 2007 update: A "Dear Principals, Parents, Staff, and Community" letter went out from Garth Harries, dated June 19 and lists the many goodies to be doled out to make the KGIA's presence palatable to unhappy parents: new equipment, a dance studio, an upgraded technology lab, 48 stolen computers replaced (quite contrary to normal DoE policy), additional storage and shelving space, more air-conditioning, and so forth.
June 23, 2007 update: A new organization, "Stop the Madrassa Coalition" has come into being to stymie KGIA's opening in a couple of months. It boasts a website, www.stopthemadrassa.wordpress.com, and I am pleased to see that this blog gets the show started.
June 25, 2007 update: In undated story by Amanda Millner-Fairbanks of Columbia University, Almontaser says about me and others that we are "loud minority voices based on ignorance, who equate Arab with Islam. Islam is a religion. It has no culture."
My response: (1) I think that, after nearly forty years studying Islam, not to speak of the Turkish and Persian languages, I can claim to realize that not all Muslims are Arabs. (2) Declaring that "Islam is a religion. It has no culture" is nonsense. Islam is a religion that has developed a distinct culture around it. Indeed, my first book, Slave Soldiers and Islam (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981), is an exploration of this very complex and deep topic.
June 29, 2007 update: In a curious piece, "Zionist Organization Supports Gibran School Principal: ADL Support Could Affect School's Success!" Antoine Faisal writes in Aramica that I
referred to the KGIA as an "Islamic madrassah,"' an intentional word choice by a journalist who knows that, while in Arabic, "Madrassah" simply means "school," in English it conjures up images of youngsters being indoctrinated in anti-Western ideology while cleaning their machine guns.
Two responses: (1) I have never written the term Islamic madrassah, so this is a falsehood. (2) Faisal is correct that the Arabic term carries quite different connotations in English, minus the machine guns I did precisely mean to raise precisely the picture of "youngsters being indoctrinated in anti-Western ideology."
July 17, 2007 update: Beila Rabinowitz and William Mayer dig deeper into Dhabah Almontaser's associations at "Hamas Sympathizers Tied To Khalil Gibran International Academy?"
Aug. 6, 2007 update: Relying on information from the "Stop the Madrassa Coalition," the New York Post in "City Principal Is 'Revolting'" reports on ties between Almontaser and T-shirts with "Intifada NYC" written on them. This apparent call for a Palestinian-style uprising in the five boroughs is made available, Chuck Bennett and Jana Winter write, by an organization, Arab Women Active in Art and Media, that shares office space on Brooklyn's Third Avenue with the Saba Association of American Yemenis. Almontaser in turn is both a board member and the spokeswoman for the Saba Association.
T-shirt with "Intifada NYC" written on it that Dhabah Almontaser defends.
When asked about the slogan on the these T-shirts, Almontaser broke her self-imposed silence and downplayed its significance.
The word [intifada] basically means "shaking off." That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic. 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.
While AWAAM refused comment, its co-founders, Rama Kased and Mona Eldahry, are active in al-Awda, whose main goal is to submerge Israel under a Palestinian influx.
Comments: (1) Almontaser's radical ties are deep and wide – the more one searches, the more apparent they become. (2) Exactly how are New York City's girls oppressed? (3) She probably should have remained silent, as her response cited above only aggravates the situation. The NYC Department of Education defended Almontaser, describing her link to the T-shirt as tenuous, which is true, but she now foolishly has defended the foul shirts. 4) Awaam is the colloquial Arabic pronunciation for qawwām, which translates as rebels or insurgents. And the word qawwām is written in Arabic script on the T-shirt, قوام.
Also today, John Matthies, my colleague and assistant director of Islamist Watch, is quoted in "NYC Officials Accused of Withholding Information on Arab School" wondering about KGIA's advisory board: "I don't know why all these religions are on the board. It's evenly divided among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, seemingly to allay concerns." To which Melody Meyer, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Education replied that the make-up of the advisory board had "absolutely" nothing to do with religion. "The board was chosen because they are people who could speak to the hearts and minds of the community. They were chosen based on their ability to communicate."
Comment: If you believe Meyer, I have a bridge to sell you, so you can get to the KGIA.
Aug. 7, 2007 update: Things are heating up concerning Dhabah Almontaser.
(1) Almontaser's has retreated from her defense of the t-shirts. Under Department of Education auspices, issued a statement saying, "The word 'intifada' is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan. 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."
(2) Despite this apology, calls for Almontaser's resignation or firing are coming in fast and furious:.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind: "It is an absolute outrage that she doesn't know what intifada is all about. This is not about shaking off - this is about carnage represented by blowing up pizza stores in Israel, blowing up buses."
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr.: "This woman should not be principal of any school."
A New York Post editorial, "Joel Klein's Choice":
Either she is a fool or she thinks New Yorkers are morons. Regardless, she has no business running a public school. … No doubt, Almontaser is right about the literal definition of "intifada." But if its generally accepted meaning were as benign as she insists, you can bet no one would be wearing it on a T-shirt. You can further bet that she knows it.
Now, if Dhabah Almontaser is going to be as disingenuous about something like this, why should New Yorkers believe her claim that "you won't find religious or political indoctrination or anti-Americanism" at her Khalil Gibran school? Or, if she really doesn't understand the difference, what is she doing with the job in the first place? … if [Schools Chancellor Joel] chooses to go ahead with this dubious enterprise [i.e., KGIA], he needs to do it with someone other than Dhabah "Debbie" Almontaser as principal.
Aug. 9, 2007 update: Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, a union, wrote a letter to the New York Post published today in which she slams Almontaser:
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 ("Joel Klein's Choice," Post-Opinion, Aug. 7).
As someone who traveled to Israel within the year, I know intifada means more than simply "shaking off oppression," as Almontaser claims. The rampant violence and bloodshed resulting from these upheavals are blatantly obvious and very painful to those of us who hope for a lasting peace in the region.
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.
A school bearing the name of the poet and painter should teach children about peace, not war-mongering, and principals should understand the difference.
In conversation with the New York Post, "Randi Rips 'Intifada' Principal," Weingarten elaborates on this letter.
Also, Assemblyman Dov Hikind has called a protest this on August 12, at 10 a.m. outside the offices of Chancellor Joel Klein, at 52 Chambers Street, in lower Manhattan, "asking for the removal of Debbie Almontaser as principal of KGIA."
Aug. 10, 2007 update: Dhabah Almontaser has resigned as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Here are various documents, some of them assembled by Julie Bosman of the New York Times:
Almontaser sent a pugnacious letter of resignation to Klein:
Unfortunately, a small group of highly misguided individuals has launched a relentless attack on me because of my religion. They have used my religion as the pretext to undermine the Academy and have taken my words out of context to distort my record and portray me as something that I am not. They have not succeeded, of course. The Academy will open as scheduled. They confused me for the larger movement in support of equity in education for all New Yorkers and they underestimated the Mayor's commitment.
With your unwavering support in the face of these unprecedented attacks, and the love of my family, they did not bother me. However, their 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.
The small group of fear mongers who used hate and prejudice to try to derail the Academy are on the wrong side of history. New York is bigger than that; America is fairer than that.
Almontaser also released a milder public statement, under Education Department auspices:
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. I have spent the last two years of my nearly 15 years with the Department working to create the unique educational opportunities that the school will offer. I will not allow the recent outcry to undermine these possibilities for the children of our city.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the resignation during his weekly radio show on WABC-AM:
I know the woman. She's worked for the city in a variety of capacities. She's very smart. She's certainly not a terrorist. She really does care. And she said something a couple days ago—she got a question, she's not all that media-savvy maybe, and she tried to explain a word rather than just condemn. But 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. But now, let's look to the future.
School Chancellor Joel Klein issued a statement:
I accept the resignation of Debbie Almontaser, founder of Khalil Gibran International Academy. Debbie brought to the work of creating the school strong dedication and a commitment to the success of all of New York City's children. She reflected that commitment by stepping aside as the school's leader when controversy about her remarks threatened to destabilize the school. I continue to believe that an Arabic dual language program, much like our other successful dual language programs, offers unique preparation for the global marketplace, and I remain committed to the success of Khalil Gibran International Academy.
Randi Weingarten released a statement:
We respect Ms. Almontaser's decision to resign to allow the Khalil Gibran International Academy to go forward with its educational mission. Getting a new school up and running is challenging under the best of circumstances, and the controversy surrounding her was a distraction that kept concerned parents and educators from focusing on the benefits and potential of this dual-language school. Ms. Almontaser has a reputation for being a caring and dedicated educator, and we hope she will continue to work for the benefit of children.
In light of this news, Dov Hikind cancelled the rally scheduled for August 12. Hikind added that he hopes to convince the New York State legislature to call on the city to shut down the school before it even opens. He prefers that Arabic be taught in normal public schools. "If she got herself into trouble, imagine what the kids will do."
In other KGIA news, the initial 6th-grade class contains just 44 registered students, including 6 Arabic speakers and 1 English-language learner. Some 75 percent of students identified themselves as "black." So far, 5 teachers have been hired. Also, the Department of Education denied her request to serve "halal" meals in the school cafeteria; students wanting halal meals would have to bring them on their own. Finally, the DOE insists that the Arabic-speakers Almontaser wants to bring in to converse with students during lunch would first have to go through a background check.
Comments: (1) Its immediate cause must be the most surprising aspect of Almontaser's resignation. I offer three explanations for why the "Intifada NYC" T-shirts affected her after she'd been tied, without effect, to so many radical activities and outlandish statements in the past.
Something said currently counts in a way that older missteps did not.
The Arab-Israeli conflict hits home in ways that anti-Americanism does not.
This statement culminated a months' long process, serving as the straw that broke the camel's back.
(2) Almontaser's departure from KGIA, highly welcome as it is, does not solve the more basic problem of an Arabic-language school lacking special scrutiny. To repeat what I wrote when I first took up this topic in March:
In principle it is a great idea – the United States needs more Arabic-speakers. In practice, however, Arabic instruction is heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands.… an Arabic-language school in New York needs to be held under special scrutiny.… unless such controls are clearly put in place, I am opposed to the opening of this school.
The city, in other words, can take steps to make the KGIA acceptable. Trouble is, in the statements quoted above by the mayor and school chancellor, they suggest no such steps are underway. Until and unless the city leadership changes the tone and substance of its approach to the KGIA, I shall continue to call for its not opening on September 4, 2007, for the 2007-08 school year.
Aug. 11, 2007 update: The New York Post put the Almontaser resignation on its first page with the headline "Sheik Up." America Online placed this news on its "Welcome page" and asked two questions of its readers in a large-scale but unscientific poll. As of 5 p.m. EDT today, the replies looked like this:
New York Post front page of August 11, 2007, with a picture of Dhabah Almontaser and the headline "Sheik Up."
Do you find T-shirts imprinted with "Intifada NYC" offensive?
Yes 83% 124,899
No 17% 25,647
What do you think about the principal's resignation?
It's a good thing 86% 119,764
It's a bad thing 14% 19,146
Unfortunately, AOL did not ask readers whether KGIA should or should not be opened on September 4, but the drift of public opinion is very clear.
"Almontaser will remain on the Department of Education payroll and be reassigned to a position not connected with the academy," reports the New York Post (in an article titled "INTIF-ADIOS TO SCHOOL CHIEF.)".
Aug. 12, 2007 update: According to Rima Abdelkader, a New York-based journalist who writes at www.Arabisto.com, "the Arab-American community in New York will be holding an impromptu town hall meeting to be scheduled tomorrow[, Aug. 13,] at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge at 6:30pm.… Discussions will include a city-wide boycott of the New York Post as well as on how the situation has been handled by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Department of Education."
Abdelkader then continues with some surprising news: "Ms. Almontaser will be returning to her previous position on Monday, August 13 and KGIA will continue to be in service, according to a reliable source I spoke to earlier today. I was also told that Lena Alhusseini, head of the AAFSC, will decide on who will replace Ms. Almontaser."
Comments: (1) The Islamic Society of Bay Ridge has been recently in the news due to criticism of New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott receiving a Pulitzer Prize for her puff-piece on the society's imam, hiding the radicalized nature of this mosque.
(2) Presumably the boycott of the New York Post would be in retaliation for its hard-hitting news coverage and editorials on the Almontaser matter.
(3) "Lena Alhusseini, head of the AAFSC, will decide on who will replace Ms. Almontaser." Really, and not the Department of Education? One knew that the Arab American Family Support Center had a central role at the KGIA, but not quite this central.
Aug. 13, 2007 update: Abdelkader got it wrong, as her correction on the same webpage indicates. She quotes Almontaser:
For the record, I have not had any discussion about continuing with the Department of Education with anyone. As for my replacement, the Arab-American Family Support Center can make a recommendation to Chancellor Klein who then decides who to hire.
Lena Alhusseini of AAFSC also corrected the record: "The DOE decides on hiring a new principal not AAFSC."
And, indeed, Klein made an appointment today, choosing Danielle Salzberg as interim principal of KGIA. In a statement, he said of her:
Danielle is a strong leader and an excellent educator who knows what it takes to help our students succeed. Working with the committed and talented staff at Khalil Gibran, I am confident that Danielle will help ensure that students receive the top-notch education they need and deserve.
On behalf of the AAFSC, Alhusseini professes herself "delighted" with the choice. She calls Salzberg "uniquely qualified to assume this post" because, as a senior program officer for "New Visions for Public Schools," she "had direct responsibility for supporting the Khalil Gibran planning team over the last six months." Also, Alhusseini finds that Salzberg shares AAFSC's "dedication to creating" the KGIA.
Mona Eldahry, founding director of AWAAM, at an event supporting Dhabah Almontaser and the KGIA
On a related subject, the Stop the Madrassa coalition has information about KGIA's scholastic materials
, according to a WorldNetDaily.com report:
Text books, lesson plans and teacher materials will be adapted from publications supplied by the Council on Islamic Education, Springer says. CIE's chief consultant is Susan Douglass, a Muslim activist whose husband is on the Saudi government payroll as a teacher at an Islamic academy that has graduated terrorists. "Parents have raised the fear of jihad incitement privately," said [eighth-grade teacher Sara] Springer, who has attended a few of the PTA meetings concerning the school.
Comment: Predictably, the Council on Islamic Education is an Islamist organization.
Also of interest is an account from a pro-KGIA source on what happened to Almontaser and why she is no longer principal of KGIA. Here is Mona Eldahry, co-founder of AWAAM, speaking on "Democracy Now!", the interview show hosted by Amy Goodman:
The forces opposed are actually, you know, organized, organized people, who should be, you know—who should be brought to, you know—we should address this. There's a Stop the Madrassa Coalition, and if you go to their website, you can see all of the organizations who are involved. There's Pamela Hall, who's the head of that. And there's Daniel Pipes, who is a blogger, website owner, you know. And they have really whipped up this hysteria. And the thing is that the press, the Post and Fox, have actually helped them do it. The press is—if it wasn't for the press, Randi Weingarten would not have condemned Debbie, and if it wasn't for that, Debbie probably would not have resigned.
I may disagree politically with Eldahry, but not with her account of what happened, even if she has mangled who I am.
Aug. 14, 2007 update
Danielle Salzberg of the Khalil Gibran International Academy opens a door to the school as women in black body coverings bring their children to her.
: How interesting to learn more about Danielle Salzberg
, the interim KGIA principal. Elizabeth Green of the New York Sun
interviewed her father, Michael Salzberg, and found out that Danielle grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household, has a bachelor's degree from New York University, then attended Columbia Teachers College, does not speak Arabic, and belongs to a Manhattan synagogue. Her father says she seemed apprehensive when the Department of Education asked her to run Khalil Gibran temporarily. He noted that his daughter's politics are far more liberal than his.
Meanwhile, the STM Coalition website documents the ways that Salzberg was presumably involved in the mistakes of KGIA thus far.
Comments: (1) This is one clever appointment by the Department of Education. (2) Will a liberal Jewish woman who does not know Arabic be the one to stymie KGIA's Arabist and Islamist impulses? Count me highly skeptical – and still opposed to this school opening in exactly three weeks.
Aug. 15, 2007 update: I published a third column today on the KGIA, "Stop the NYC Madrassa," focusing on the role of the "Stop the Madrassa Coalition." Also, a picture accompanying a New York Post story on the KGIA shows Danielle Salzberg opening a door to the school as women in black body coverings bring their children to her, again confirming my point about the Islamist tendencies of an Arabic-language school.
Aug. 16, 2007 update: More confirmation for KGIA's Arabist/Islamist nature comes from Zein Rimawi, a founder of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and an organizer with the Arab Muslim American Federation. "It's like somebody spit in our face as Arabs," he said of the appointment of Danielle Salzberg, a Jewish woman, as KGIA principal. "They didn't hire an Arab principal [for] a Chinese school. It doesn't make any sense. This is no respect to our community. Where is the respect?"
Aug. 17, 2007 update: I discussed the KGIA today with New York City's former mayor, Ed Koch, and the conversation with him makes me realize that I need to be more specific when I say (as I did in the first entry of this weblog) that there needs to be "special scrutiny" of KGIA.
Danielle Salzberg, KGIA principal.
I do not mean by this that the advisory board (membership listed above, Apr. 28 entry) sign off on the school's activities, nor that distracted Department of Education bureaucrats nod their okay, but that there be a robust Supervisory Board specially focused on the KGIA that intensively and hands-on reviews the school's activities. Its ranks should be made up of individuals aware of and knowledgeable about the threat of radical Islam, along the lines of the NYPD report issued just two days ago, "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat." Board members must have the authority to review all aspects of Arabic instruction – personnel, methods, materials, outcomes – and have the power to close down whatever they find problematic. The board must not be seen as an opportunity to display political correctness but as providing needed self-protection so that KGIA can develop needed skills without serving as a recruiting station for radical Islam.
Aug. 18, 2007 update: Beila Rabinowitz alerts me to another Islamist feature of the KGIA's advisory board: Imam Talib Abdul-Rashid, about whom I have previously written (noting that he "belongs to the 'National Committee to Free Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin'," a convicted cop-killer), turns out to be the "resident imam" of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, Harlem. The MIB's logo shows a sword with the words "There is no deity but God and Muhammad is his prophet." Yet more alarming, however, is the Muslim Brethren slogan, devised by Hasan al-Banna himself, printed right on the "About us" page:
Logo of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, Harlem, complete with shihada and sword.
Allah is our goal
The Prophet Muhammad ibn 'Abdullah is our leader
The Qu'ran is our constitution
Jihad is our way
And death in the way of Allah is our promised end.
Abdul-Rashid's bio also lists that he is a member of the "N.Y.C. Dept. of Education Chancellor's Interfaith Advisory Committee to the NYC Dept. of Education," pointing to the deeper state of rot in the whole of the DOE when it comes to Islam. That this man is on the KGIA board offers further confirmation of the school's Islamist quality. [July 17, 2009 update: An undated page on the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood website contains "A Brief History of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood" that includes a reference to this weblog and the connection I make between the mosque and the Muslim Brethren. It acknowledges that its slogan is identical with the Muslim Brethren's and then goes on to (1) deny a connection to the Muslim Brethren and (2) claim that those five lines "are not exclusive in belief to any Muslim organization or group, but are indicative of general principles and beliefs that are not even exclusively 'radical' or 'militant'."]
Aug. 19, 2007 update: In a mailing today, CAIR not only urges "Muslim New Yorkers and other people of conscience" to sign an AWAAM petition supporting KGIA, but it also announces its co-sponsorship of a rally tomorrow at the NYC Department of Education with the same end of showing solidarity with KGIA. Talk about the school being wrapped in the mantle of Islamists!
Aug. 20, 2007 update: The Stop the Madrassa Coalition (whose advisory board I have just joined) today demanded that Talib Abdur-Rashid be dropped from the KGIA advisory board. (For the board's make-up, see the Apr. 28 entry.) A coalition spokeswoman described his efforts as "indoctrination in which they make everything Muslim- and Islamic-centric, at the expense of the rest of the world's contribution to history."
Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Khalil Gibran International Academy advisory board.
Aug. 21, 2007 update: What about the KGIA advisory board as a whole? Elizabeth Green writes in today's New York Sun:
A member of the Khalil Gibran advisory council, Rabbi Andrew Bachman, said the board has yet to meet and has been effectively dissolved since Ms. Almontaser resigned earlier this month. Rabbi Bachman said he has not heard from Khalil Gibran's new principal, Danielle Salzberg, since she took over last week. A Department of Education spokeswoman said Ms. Salzberg will decide whether the advisory board will continue.
Also, a transcript of the Aug. 13 meeting at Brooklyn's Islamic Center of Bay Ridge in support of Almontaser includes a woman from CAIR announcing that "at our office too we've been talking about this all day," meaning the Almontaser resignation. No surprise, as this has been CAIR's baby from the start.
Aug. 27, 2007 update: The Thomas More Law Center, a Christian public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, announced that it is representing New Yorkers opposed to the opening of the KGIA in just over a week. "This proposed public school is nothing more than an incubator for the radicalization that leads to terrorism," says Richard Thompson, president of the center.
Aug. 28, 2007 update: The "Friends of Gibran Council" (which defines itself as "an international organization with chapters in Lebanon and the United States") issued a statement today, "The Friends of Gibran Council Asks the New York City Department of Education To Cease Using Kahlil Gibran's name for the Khalil Gibran International Academy." It includes the following passages:
The proposed Kahlil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), based on information received to date by the FoGC, would not honor the legacy of a great poet, an artist who achieved greatness in the US as an emigrant fleeing Lebanon where his community has been suffering persecution in their ancestral home in Lebanon at the hands of religious powers. …
the board of trustees of the KGIA should reflect Gibran's values and ideals. Appointing radicals and Imams who have been associated with extremist and Jihadist groups is an affront to these ideals.
The teaching of Arabic in public schools is a laudable goal; many more American students should be proficient in this largely spoken language. However, in no way should the Arabic language and Islamism be mixed.
Sep. 5, 2007 update: To commemorate the opening of KGIA, I published an article, "Teach Arabic or Recruit Extremists?" that looks at other public schools teaching Arabic in the United StatesStates and shows the consistent pattern of pan-Arab nationalist or Islamist recruitment.
Also today, Andrea Peyser writes at "Odd Lesson on 'Jihad' at Arab Academy" about the views of Talib Abdur-Rashid of KGIA's advisory board, about the meaning of jihad. "Struggle," he explains. When Peyser protests that to her it means holy war, he replies, "And that's not my definition. That's a common definition - struggle on various levels." And Peyser reports that Almontaser yesterday told CNN International that she is not a terrorist, but her critics are. "To me, [they] seem more like terrorists. They're the ones who are terrorizing us."
Sep. 19, 2007 update: Another distressing sign that the KGIA purpose is less to teach Americans Arabic and more to coddle Arab-Americans, from a news report about efforts to reinstate Almontaser:
Sara Said, 21, a college student who immigrated from Yemen 12 years ago and lives in Brooklyn, said her brother, 11, is learning math and science as well as Arabic at Khalil Gibran. "I want him to be in an environment where he learns about Arabic culture," she said. "That way he'll be proud of who he is."
Oct. 17, 2007 update: In Almontaser's first public statement since her resignation, she mentions several critical writings on KGIA, including my first column on the school, "A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn," then she goes on to assert:
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.
In related news, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) came out in support of Almontaser's reinstatement. In addition, its press release indicates that it belongs to "Communities in Support of KGIA."
Comment: Almontaser is providing more evidence for why she should not be principal of a New York City public school, or in any other way affiliated with the educational system. First wrong fact: I never "ran" the Stop the Madrassa Coalition. It started completely independently of me in June and I joined its advisory board in August. Second wrong fact: I do not hate Arabs and Muslims and have never fostered such sentiments. I defy Almontaser to produce evidence to the contrary.
Oct. 25, 2007 update: A little sleuthing finds that Almontaser donated a sizeable amount of money to the Islamist friendly Cynthia McKinney.
Nov. 20, 2007 update: "CAIR-NY Joins Rally for Ousted Arabic School Principal" headlines a press release issued today by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which reads in part:
A representative of the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY) yesterday spoke at a press conference in support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy's founding principal Debbie Almontaser who is suing New York City's Department of Education and mayor for alleged violation of her First Amendment rights.
Almontaser's complaint claims the mayor and schools chancellor engaged in a conspiracy to deny her her constitutional right of freedom of speech.
Comment: Not only did Almontaser receive an award from CAIR, the country's leading Islamist group (on which see the Mar. 10, 2007 update), but she enjoys its political support. That's yet another reason to worry about the Islamist orientation of the school she designed and once led.
Nov. 22, 2007 update: More evidence about Almontaser's affiliations: speakers at a rally on her behalf that took place Nov. 19, reports the New York Jewish Week, included not just Faiza Ali representing CAIR (see the Nov. 20, 2007 update on that) but also two other figures of note:
Charles Barron, former Black Panther and now City Council member from Brooklyn, supports Dhabah Almontaser as principal of KGIA.
Mona Eldahry, executive director of Arab Women in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), who as lead speaker at the rally, "hailed Almontaser for having refused to condemn the T-shirts."
Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and now City Council member from Brooklyn, who has made a career out of black racism, as can be seen by reading his entry at Discover the Network.
(For videos of the speeches at the Nov. 19 event, see http://www.awaam.org/.)
Hearing about these speakers, Jeff Wiesenfeld of Stop the Madrassa Coalition responded, "I ask the readership of The Jewish Week, now that they know who the supporters of this school are, are they happy? Are they comfortable? Does this give them confidence that [the Khalil Gibran International Academy] is one that is properly controlled and supervised?"
Nov. 26, 2007 update: Chuck Bennett of the New York Post reports in "Class 'clown': Arab school extremists? Try a mime," about the personal biographies of some of the school's teachers. He starts with this observation: "Critics of the Khalil Gibran International Academy feared the new Brooklyn school would become an Islamic extremist indoctrination center. But a review of the professional work histories of the staff reveals little to suggest anything so nefarious."
Then Bennett gives three redacted examples of teacher backgrounds. (Redacted because the Department of Education fears legal action from the teachers union; so it provided the Post with only some details of cover letters and résumés but not names of teachers.)
- The school's English-as-a-second-language teacher is "a mother of two grown children, has a 1983 law degree from Brooklyn College and a Master's in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Indeed, the only thing that stands out is that she owned up on her résumé to working as a mime from 1971 to 1973."
- "The humanities teacher professes a love for TS Eliot in his or her résumé. The 1997 graduate of Ain Shams University in Cairo did a thesis on "religious drama" in the poet's work. The teacher then received the equivalent of a Master's in education from Alexandria University in Egypt."
- "The school's other Arabic speaker teaches math, and is an immigrant from an unspecified Middle Eastern country. This instructor, who has a Master's from Brooklyn College, served on the planning committee of the academy with Debbie Almontaser."
Comment: This is one of the most foolish commentaries of the entire KGIA affair, for Bennett assumes that playing as a mime, loving T.S. Eliot, or mastering mathematics implies moderation. But, as I established twelve years ago in "The Western Mind of Radical Islam," it is not just possible to combine these interests with Islamism but a widespread pattern. Coincidentally, that article mentions T.S. Eliot in its first paragraph:
Dhabah ("Debbie") Almontaser.
Fat'hi ash-Shiqaqi, a well-educated young Palestinian living in Damascus, recently boasted of his familiarity with European literature. He told an interviewer how he had read and enjoyed Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Sartre, and T.S. Eliot. He spoke of his particular passion for Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, a work he read ten times in English translation "and each time wept bitterly." Such acquaintance with world literature and such exquisite sensibility would not be of note except for two points – that Shiqaqi was, until his assassination in Malta in late 1995, a fundamentalist Muslim and that he headed Islamic Jihad, the arch-terrorist organization that has murdered dozens of Israelis over the last two years.
Need one say more? The article offers an explanation for the tie between modernity and Islamism.
Jan. 9, 2008 update: The KGIA has a new principal, Holly Anne Reichert, 42, and she immediately distanced herself from Almontaser's mischievous legacy by responding to a question about intifada, saying: "It's a word that connotes tremendous violent conflict, and I don't think it should be used casually, as on a T-shirt." Let's hope that this reply augurs a real change of mentality at KGIA, not just a cosmetic one for media purposes.
Jan. 17, 2008 update: Sean R. Grogan, a science teacher at KGIA, issued a statement today that includes this cry of despair:
the school has been abandoned by all those who claim to support it. We have not received the instruments and items we were told to expect. Our space is inappropriate; we have been forced to teach in a reading room and a hallway. The partitions that were provided to us do not reach the ceilings. Lockers were not installed until last Friday, leaving our students with no where to store their belongings. We have been left and forgotten. Teachers have been chastised without being offered the proper supports. Our social worker is being let go, against the wishes of many of the students, parents, and staff due to a personal bias on the part of the former principal. These things may sound trivial to an outsider, but most any teacher can tell you that an inappropriate location can hurt a child's success. Add to that the number of resources we are not set up to provide and the result is teachers scrambling to fill in gaps that they are not meant to fill.
Jan. 29, 2008 update: Sara Springer of the Stop the Madrassa Coalition attended today a "Performance in Support of The Khalil Gibran International Academy," and came away with the sense that it "seemed more like a wake than a celebration."
That feeling was underlined by the evening's speakers, those most intimately involved with the controversial Arab language school, its instructors, some of whom choked back tears while they addressed a crowd of approximately 200. Instead of touting the school's success, nearly everyone who addressed the assembly talked about the institution's abandonment and loss of support by the DOE, New Visions, and Brooklyn's Arab American Family Support Center [AAFSC]. To those who spoke tonight, the school is a hollow shell of what New York DOE Chancellor Joel Klein had promised, and what Department spokesmen continue to portray in public.
Security problems abound, with one teacher confiding to a member of the KGIA design team that he had been assaulted today but was forced to take the matter to the police because school security did not respond. He further stated that for his efforts he had been reprimanded by school leadership. Tonight's speakers appeared to be united in their belief that so little in the way of Arabic language instruction materials are being supplied that KGIA staff are being forced to download such basic items as Arabic characters from the internet, in order to present to their language classes which have been drastically cut in number and duration.
Springer concludes that "KGIA looms as a failed experiment. It is a disaster imposed upon Brooklyn by an arrogant DOE which now maintains the effort out of sheer spite, defiant to the last that the program's critics, which now have been proven right, will not be allowed to triumph."
Feb. 27, 2008 update: KGIA has not even been open a full half year and it already seems to be sinking, according to Ariel Siegel, "Problems persist at city Arabic school" in Washington Square News of New York University. The troubles are several-fold:
- "since its inception it has been a source of controversy and criticism from people who question the value and mission of an Arabic school in the public school system. Groups have formed to protest the school and its curriculum, including a coalition of community members called "Stop the Madrassa," which calls KGIA "a badly managed and inflammatory educational 'experiment'" on its website.
- from the opposite direction, "some school supporters are calling for the return of founding principal Debbie Almontaser," even going to the extent of bad-mouthing Holly Ann Reichert, who has not even been at the school two months. For example, Fatin Jarara, whose younger sister attends KGIA, issued a press release stating that "Ms. Reichert seemingly does not have the leadership skills it takes to manage the school well."
- "teachers at the school have said KGIA has been provided with inadequate space, inadequate materials." KGIA teachers said that they lack such tools as "a good textbook, a language lab, internet usage from time to time, or access to some good Arabic TV channels."
- inability "to effectively integrate Arabic culture into the curriculum - one of the primary purposes of the school's creation, according to KGIA's page on the DOE's website."
Also, the DOE has indicated that KGIA will probably move to another location with more space in September 2008.
Feb. 28, 2008 update: Yet more troubles – no one wants KGIA. "Khalil Academy's plans to inhabit P.S. 287 met with resistance," write Rachel Monahan and Carrie Melago in the New York Daily News. The DOE has ideas of moving it to Public School 287 in the Fort Greene are next academic year but parents from the school have made known their opposition to the school.
- PTA President Edgardo Rivera: "It's a bad idea altogether. We want the elementary school to stay an elementary school."
- Ed Brown, president of the Ingersoll Parents Association: "I'm adamantly opposed to its being in this building."
Mar. 3, 2008 update: Almontaser and her supporters just won't give up, but keep ratcheting up the pressure for her return. Something called Riptide Communications posted a press release today, "Arab-American Educator Charges NYC Department of Education with Discrimination," that indicates she "filed an amended complaint in her federal lawsuit and a charge with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, both of which assert that Department of Education (DOE) officials discriminated against her on the basis of race, religion, and national origin." To be more specific, says her lawyer, Alan Levine:
The DOE's demand for Almontaser's resignation followed a relentless public relations assault that focused on her as an Arab and a Muslim. The DOE's capitulation to those attacks constitutes, as a matter of law, discrimination by the DOE. The appointment of a patently less qualified white, non-Muslim woman was the final act of the DOE's discriminatory conduct.
That's sure not mincing words. Also of note, the release seems to blame half of Almontaser's predicament on this entry:
As a result of a series of attacks on the school by a conservative blog and an article in the New York Post that quoted Ms. Almontaser on a matter completely unrelated to KGIA, the DOE forced her to resign her post and further, denied her the opportunity to apply for the job of permanent Principal.
Mar. 20, 2008 update: In a complex legal development the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that Almontaser, in the words of the Associated Press, "cannot immediately force New York City to give her another shot at getting her job back. … But Debbie Almontaser may still pursue the matter at a trial." The fast track denied her, the case could take years to resolve. Having lost her appeal for immediate reconsideration by the DOE, everything stays the way it is. Almontaser could still win the case; or New York City could settle it with her.
Mar. 21, 2008 update: Mary Frost reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that Almontaser will continue her efforts to become principal of KGIA.
Apr. 3, 2008 update: The annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association inspired an open letter signed by thirty educaters to New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein "in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy and Principal Debbie Almontaser." They pull no punches:
When Debbie Almontaser was forced out as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a blow was struck against the rights and academic freedom of educators everywhere. Principal Almontaser was the guiding light and the pioneer behind the founding of the new school, which was envisioned as part of a vibrant small-schools movement fostering personalization, autonomy, and the empowerment of teachers.
A campaign of lies, racial fear, and anti-Arab prejudice, emanating from a conservative media group including the New York Post and supported by Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, forced Almontaser from her post. … KGIA was attacked by a small group of fear-mongering bigots. It was labeled a "terrorist school" and a "madrassa." …
Debbie Almontaser did nothing wrong. She committed no crime. She violated no rules nor any terms of her contract. She was forced to resign after doing nothing more than answering a reporter's question about the root meaning of the word "intifada."
For those of us working in the field of education, the treatment of Debbie Almontaser represents a threat not only to our rights as educators and citizens in a democratic society; it is also an attack on the small-schools movement and on the push for diversity and equity within our system of public education. Will bigotry be allowed to decide which public schools can exist and who can lead them?
We the undersigned insist that Debbie Almontaser be returned to her post as founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy.
One of the letter's signatories, Michael Klonsky, explained the genesis of the letter at the AERA conference. "There was so much support among the leading educators around the country, we thought we should do something."
Comments: (1) More of that name-calling. Can't the Left ever formulate a positive argument anymore? (2) KGIA and Almontaser are turning into a national cause celèbre.
Apr. 4, 2008 update: Stop the Madrassa Community Coalition did some research into the AERA letter signatories and found that they include "a number of well- known former leaders of extremist Leftist organizations." It points specifically to William Ayers, the Weather Underground member personally involved with a number of terrorist incidents in the 1970s, and Michael Klonsky, founder and chairman of the pro-Maoist "Communist Party, Marxist-Leninist."
Apr. 5, 2008 update: KGIA finally has a new location, shoe-horned into Public School 287, on Navy Street near Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. Trouble is, the parents of at the Vinegar Hill elementary school already there are none too happy, according to Dana Rubinstein in the Brooklyn Paper. One complained about having been "bamboozled" by the city without advance discussions. Edgardo Rivera, head of the Parent-Teacher Association at the elementary school added that "Everyone was stunned by the decision." Councilwoman Letitia James (D–Fort Greene) complained that "The city originally told stakeholders that it was just thinking about placing Khalil Gibran there, and then they come back and say it's a done deal." To which Melody Meyer, the beleagured DOE spokeswoman replied that "The parent leaders have been a part of the process from the beginning."
Apr. 11, 2008 update: The KGIA seems unable to get anything right. Rachel Monahan reports in the New York Daily News that it also suffers problems of space and control. Teachers union district representative Bob Zuckerberg says "The space there is totally unacceptable. [It's] something the Department of Education should never have allowed." Because classrooms are separated by walls that do not reach the ceiling, "The noise level is kind of high," according to Zuckerberg. "Because of the space issues, it has led to discipline and safety issues."
Parents are in a near-state of revolt. KGIA's Parent-Teacher Association President Pomposa Peña threatens that she and many other parents "are planning to transfer our kids to other schools at the end of this school year if the Department of Education continues to neglect [KGIA]." One father of a student, Muhammed Shahadat, complains that students lack access to computers in recent months and even Arabic lessons have been scaled back. (Department of Education officials acknowledge that the after-school program classes have been reduced from twice a week to once.) Shahadat added: "It's not what you'd expect of public school. A lot of parents have said that the principal lacks the experience to discipline the kids."
Apr. 11, 2008 update bis: Stephen Schwartz reports in "CAIR vs. the NYPD" The Wahhabi lobby attacks" that Almontaser's ties to CAIR run significantly deeper than was known before.
The issue concerns an exemplary report issued in 2007 by the New York Police Department (NYPD), Radicalization in the West: The Home-Grown Threat, that anchored terrorism in what it called the "jihadi-Salafi" ideology. The analysis, naturally, met with a hostile reception from CAIR. Schwartz reveals that it and other organizations issued a statement on November 23, 2007, in the name of the "Muslim community," protesting the report and calling on New York police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly to rescind and correct it, and also to commit to working with Islamist organizations. These Wahhabi lobby activists then formulated a "Community Statement" that critiqued the report and informed the city's police what they really should do in response to Islamism. As Schwartz puts it, "The extremists would set the NYPD's overall agenda, forcing Commissioner Kelly and his personnel to work according to Wahhabi guidelines and at the Wahhabis' convenience."
Schwartz also got hold of the minutes of a meeting held in New York on March 3, when CAIR (represented by Faiza Ali, Aliya Latif, and Omar Mohammadi) met with Syed Z. Sayeed and Almontaser to prepare a detailed reply to Radicalization in the West. Schwartz then notes:
Perhaps the most remarkable detail about the March 3 conclave was the leading role taken in it by Debbie Almontaser, a New York resident who last attracted attention as the front-person for a middle-and-high magnet school to be established in New York, the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA). KGIA was intended as a special institution emphasizing an Arabic language curriculum and related studies, but its proponents were accused of trying to establish an "intifada academy." Nevertheless, when Almontaser came under scrutiny as the project head she was defended by many in New York as a faultless moderate. Her involvement in CAIR's counter-attack on the NYPD demonstrates otherwise: her assignment in dealing with NYPD was to organize an online discussion group for input into the Community Statement.
Such would not be a minor responsibility, and shows that she enjoyed the full confidence of the CAIR commissars. Debbie Almontaser appears to be a classic "stealth Islamist," and KGIA looks like just the kind of radicalizing effort it was said to be by its critics.
Comment: Now we have a better idea why Almontaser received a CAIR award (on which, see above, Mar. 10, 2007 update).
Apr. 17, 2008 update: Moving KGIA to P.S. 287 in Fort Greene appears to one advocate, Mona Eldahry of Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), to amount to a death sentence for the school. First, the move takes the school out of an Arabic-speaking neighborhood and "It's best for a dual language school to be in a neighborhood where the language taught is spoken." Second, the administration's having abandoned Almontaser means that the DoE is pandering to its critics, which Eldanry deems a "crime." Keeping KGIA in its current location and funding it more generously would, Eldahry concedes, "right the wrong" of Almontaser's ouster.
Apr. 28, 2008 update: The New York Times has published today a nearly 4,500-word article, "Her Dream, Branded as a Threat" by Andrea Elliott, plus a set of video interviews, "Battle Over a Brooklyn School," that looks in depth at the school and the issues it raises. While overtly sympathetic to Almontaser (note the article's title), Elliott fairly represented the views of school critics, including myself. She also provides some new pieces of information:
In planning the new Arabic school, Almontaser needed a community partner. Elliott explains: "Two groups wanted the job: a secular Arab-American social services agency and a Muslim-led organization that runs Al-Noor School, a private Islamic establishment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Ms. Almontaser said she tried to remain neutral as discord erupted between the two groups. Quietly, though, she worried that if an organization linked to a private Islamic school took the lead, the city would never approve the project, despite the group's pledge to keep religion out of the curriculum. Ultimately, a steering committee led by Ms. Almontaser voted in favor of the social services agency. Leaders of the Muslim group walked away feeling disrespected and distrustful of her, several of the group's members said in interviews."
Of interest particularly to me was to learn that in mid-2007 (no specific date provided), David Cantor, chief spokesman for the NYC Department of Education, wrote an e-mail message to Seth Lipsky, editor of The New York Sun: "I won't allow Dan Pipes a free pass to smear Debbie Almontaser as an Islamist proselytizer who denies Muslim involvement in 9/11. It is a false picture and an ugly effort." Comment: Excuse me, but is this the way for public officials to refer to critics?
Soon after KGIA opened its doors on Sep. 4, 2007, chaos erupted inside. "Students cut classes and got into fights with little consequence, said staff members, parents and students. At least 12 of the 60 students showed signs of behavioral problems or learning disabilities, said Leslie Kahn, a licensed social worker and counselor who was employed at the school until January. (Education Department officials, who denied repeated requests by The Times to visit the school, said there are currently six special-needs students there.) "Something is flying through the air, every class, every day," Sean R. Grogan, a science teacher at the school, said in an interview. "Kids bang on the partitions, yell and scream, curse and swear. It's out of control." Physical altercations are frequent, Mr. Grogan and others said, with Arab students and teachers the target of ethnic slurs. "I just don't feel safe," said an Arab-American student, 11, who will not return to the school next year."
The Elliott piece prompted several hundred comments on the Times website, the great majority of them ignorant and vulgar. But one, #433, caught my eye. Signed by "A Teacher, Brooklyn," it contains a first-hand account of the tribulations at KGIA and replies to a question I have asked:
As a teacher at KGIA I have to say things have barely improved since Holly Reichert's appointment. This week alone we have 6 students out on Suspension, one for carrying a knife to school. We have a teacher on a medical leave of absence after a student threatened to beat her, this caused her blood pressure to spike to a very unhealthy level. Ms. Reichert has threatened to fire this teacher, who is on medical leave, for missing work. She has given a new teacher, from Egypt, absolutely no support, which he has asked for on multiple occasions, but has rated him unsatisfactorily, grounds for termination at the end of the year. She has given another teacher an unsatisfactory rating after he followed her advice on how to teach a lesson. She speaks to the Arab-American teachers in a most disgusting manner saying things like, "You'll do it cause I'm the principal" and "This isn't a discussion." She has zero ability to work with staff members. She makes policy up behind our backs and imposes them upon us without addressing any of our concerns.
KGIA is a mess and we believe that this was the city's intention all along, open the controversial school so they don't get tied up in a Constitutional Lawsuit and then do everything they can to close it down. We have been denied supplies. Daniel Pipes is curious what text we use to teach Arabic, we don't have text. The administration will not supply a text or a curriculum. We have no proper science materials: microscopes, beakers, goggles, gloves, etc etc. We have a map that we can't use. We don't even have looseleaf paper.
You may not like the idea of a school teaching Arabic, but the only ones being hurt here are the kids. Given the current culture of the school, a culture of fear, the staff is afraid; afraid we may not have jobs next year because a political anti-Arab agenda, afraid we may get hurt: multiple staff members have been threatened, harassed, and hit by objects.
All we want is to do our jobs and do them well. Help us. We need materials that the Administration and DOE are denying us: looseleaf paper, folders, art supplies, science supplies, maps, atlases, the list goes on and on. So put your money where your mouth is, don't just type your thoughts help us challenge what is being done. If the Mayor sees that ordinary citizens are providing us our materials they will be forced to take notice.
Apr. 29, 2008 update: I mentioned yesterday that the Elliott article is "overtly sympathetic to Almontaser"; Sara Springer of Stop the Madrassa Coalition documents this bias today in a 2,400-word analysis at "Setting the Record Straight with the NY Times."
Apr. 29, 2008 update: I mentioned yesterday that the Elliott article is "overtly sympathetic to Almontaser"; Sara Springer of Stop the Madrassa Coalition documents this bias today in a 2,400-word analysis at "Setting the Record Straight with the NY Times."
Also today, Almontaser appeared on the far-left radio program, Democracy Now! The host, Amy Goodman, quoted at length my explaining my problems with Almontaser, then asked Almontaser to respond to me. Of most interest is her response to my noting her personal connections to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (it bestowed an award on her) and CAIR's support of KGIA. Almontaster rose to defend CAIR:
CAIR-New York is one of the most prominent civil rights organizations in New York City, as well as across the country. The president of CAIR sits on the Human Rights Commission of New York City. He was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg. So if Mayor Bloomberg has no issues with working closely with CAIR, I don't see why anyone should have any issues. CAIR, unfortunately, has been targeted, because it is fighting for the civil rights of Arabs and Muslims. And, you know, this organization, as well as other organizations fighting for civil rights of Arabs and Muslims, is very much needed.
Comment: This robust defense of CAIR, more than any other statement by Almontaser, proves she is an Islamist.
May 2, 2008 update: Adam Brodsky responds to the Elliott article in the New York Post:
Folks can debate if Almontaser, a Yemeni-American, is a well-meaning Muslim moderate railroaded out of her dream to create "ambassadors of peace and hope" - as she, and the Times, insist. They can weigh the paper's suggestion that she was fired in large part because of a Post story, which a judge said "misleadingly" reported her comments on the term "intifada."
Or they may decide that anti-Islamist experts like Daniel Pipes, who labeled her an "extremist," had her pegged better. And that the Gibran school really is "the kind of radicalizing effort it was said to be," as Stephen Schwartz put it.
That debate might answer questions like: Why did Almontaser feel compelled to defend teen girls whose group sported t-shirts with the incendiary words "Intifada NYC"? What's with her ties to groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land terror-funding case with links to Hamas?
May 5, 2008 update: The Investigative Project on Terrorism takes a close look today at Almontaser's defense of CAIR (see the May 2, 2008 update, above) and concludes: "If Ms. Almontaser is somehow trying to rebuild her credibility by reaching out to CAIR, she has made a grave error. If there was any doubt before that Ms. Almontaser was unfit to lead a public school teaching America's children, she has put that to rest by her embrace of America's foremost Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas-linked front group."
May 17, 2008 update: Three members of Stop the Madrassa Coalition, Sara Springer, Irene Alter and Pamela Hall, have brought a libel case against Almontaser on the grounds that Almontaser defamed them in claiming that the coalition "stalked" her.
May 22, 2008 update: More evidence of how wretchedly unsuited Almontaser would have been to head a New York City public school came out in a public talk she gave some days ago at the City University of New York. Phil Orenstein attended the event and wrote it up at "Fantasizing 'The New McCarthyism'."
She described how people lobbied and a movement was mobilized against the KGIA. Almontaser was the unfortunate victim of a movement by a "loud minority of voices" which she dubbed "McCarthyism of 2008." One writer to the New York Times called this movement of Daniel Pipes, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and company, "the thought police." The moderator asked why this is happening to you, why are you so under attack? In answer, she described the role played by cultural tolerance and understanding in bridging the gap between East and West and opening doors to peace, so you don't need war anymore. The purpose of KGIA is to create "ambassadors of peace and hope," as the New York Times article mentioned. She said "the school is aiming to humanize the enemy" we're supposed to be at war with. This is a threat to many people who claim that "we're at war" and "we need to keep the war going" in order to thrive. "If you don't have an enemy, you can't keep Lockheed in business." She clarified.
She further characterized her "attackers" as those who feel "we need to have an enemy, a bad guy." What they find threatening is the whole notion of "learning the language and culture of people that we should be hating because we're at war with them." Members of the audience contributed to the theme that "this country is engaged in an imperial war and needs to build up an enemy." Someone elaborated that conservatives, by the same token need to build an enemy on a smaller scale so they target local Muslims, Arabs and the KGIA, and Wiesenfeld lashes out at CUNY and public education, to fulfill their need for an enemy and someone to hate, in order to ultimately support the imperial war.
After the talk, Orenstein went over to Almontaser and spoke to her in private:
I asked her why she placed Muslim imams on the school's advisory board and why was everyone involved so secretive. The difficulty of obtaining inside information to keep the academy transparent to the public was naturally a cause for concern. The names of the clerics, on the advisory board for instance, were only later revealed in a letter to the New York Sun. She blamed the Department of Education for the lack of transparency and claimed she was always forthcoming about the curriculum, the books, and the teachers, but DOE never put it on their website. However, sources from STM claim that queries submitted to the DOE suggest that there was no indication on Almontaser's part that she was seeking transparency concerning the curriculum.
Regarding the imams on her board, she answered that when she was designing the school she was seeking advice from her friends in the community and these imams were eager to offer help. Anyway, as Almontaser declared, the board has already been disbanded by the Department of Education. But Imam Abdur-Rashid, a board member who has written in a radical vein "on the way white Americans "robbed" Africans and Muslims of their heritage," hasn't heard the news of the board's demise according to Andrea Peyser of the New York Post. … I asked Ms. Almontaser why not launch a private school to immerse the student in Arabic language and culture, or a public school with a better Arabic elective program? She answered that she was no longer a principle and cannot make decisions.
Orenstein also comments on Almontaster's seeming obsession with me:
What I witnessed was a closed forum dedicated to a veiled radical agenda, riddled by hysterical paranoia, name-calling, slanderous accusations against prominent scholars and city officials, and strategies for their ouster, where the panelists professed that "attacks" against Arabs and professors are a coordinated right wing smear campaign launched by Daniel Pipes, CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and their ilk, which they dubbed the "New McCarthyism." But Mr. Pipes and company whom they demonized with such venom, have simply exercised their First Amendment rights of critical journalism and free speech, civilly exchanging opinions and information in online magazine articles, speeches, op-eds and blogs, where all sides of the issues were often given a fair hearing in the media.
To which, he comments:
I was confused as to the reasons for their excessive paranoia. How are Pipes and company threatening their academic freedom? The so-called "New McCarthyites" have been vociferous, no doubt, but they demonstrated nothing resembling the violent student mob attacks at Columbia on Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, because he expressed disagreeable views. Mr. Pipes and a few opinionated bloggers, including myself, are not U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy. What is this "vast ideological iceberg" that is "threatening to impact the current election campaign" of which the so-called attacks on academic freedom are only the tip?
May 29, 2008 update: I have just received a report on Almontaser's statements in "The High Schools" session at the "Academic Freedom in the Age of Permanent Warfare Conference" that took place on April 3, 2008, hosted by New York University's Tamiment Library and Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center. At it, Almontaser referred to Campus Watch and facetiously called me "the person who loves me the most." She claimed that I, along with PipelineNews.org and David Horowitz, quote her out of context and use a broad brush for guilt by association. "[They believe] a jihad school grows in Brooklyn [and] describe an Islamist agenda. … [They believe] Debbie does da'wa." In response, she countered: "If you know me, you'll know I'm extremely fashionable. I wear extravagant jewelry and wear the hijab in different styles."
Almontaser, before her "extravagant jewelry and ... hijab in different styles" stage.
June 20, 2008 update: According to one KGIA student, Serena Fakir, 12, more than half of her classmates have decided not to return to KGIA as seventh graders. In addition, the New York Times reports,
16 parents, whose children attend Khalil Gibran, sent by e-mail to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg early Thursday morning. … The letter listed several reasons [for] concern. The letter complained, among other things, about the relocation of the school from 345 Dean Street in Boerum Hill to 50 Navy Street in Fort Greene, which many parents complained was far from public transportation; a decrease in the number of hours of Arabic-language instruction; disciplinary problems; and a general sense that parents were not welcome inside the school.
Aug. 7, 2008 update: BBC radio's Pascale Harter fine 23-minute piece on "Soft Jihad" in the United States aired today. It leads off with my explanation of this phenomenon, then focuses on two issues, the Khalil Gibran International Academy and the promotion of Nadia Abu El-Haj. Concerning the former, Harter interviewed Almontaser. Here follows a partial transcript revealing Almontaser's unwillingness on principle to answer a question about rejecting the use of violence in New York City:
Interviewer: Stop the Madrassa's breakthrough in its campaign to expose Debbie Almontaser as a radical came when it got hold of a photo showing T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Intifada NYC," – a clear call, according to Stop the Madrassa, for a Palestinian-style uprising in New York City. Debbie Almontaser it said was linked to the organization that printed the T-shirts, Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, or AWAAM. Mrs. Almontaser sat on the board of another association that rented AWAAM rooms for its summer program. A flurry of calls went out in the press for Mrs. Almontaser to clarify her links to the T-shirts.
Almontaser: I have no links other than that they were using the space.
Interviewer: So this link was established, it wasn't a strong link but then people said, "Okay, well do you agree with the sentiment on these T-shirts, 'Intifada NYC'?"
Almontaser: That question was not asked and if it were asked, why is it being asked of me? Its being asked of me because I'm of Arab and Muslim background.
Interviewer: But it having come to the fore, you're a public figure it's quite normal to be asked, then "Okay well you know you say that you're into interfaith dialogue; do you support this 'Intifada NYC'?" Do you?
Almontaser: The work that I have done quite frankly spells out exactly, you know, that I am a person who believes in non-violence. I'm always looking for ways to resolve conflicts creatively and positively. Again this question was not asked, and I don't think that I should be asked it right now, either because I'm Arab and Muslim that I'm being singled out for this kind of question.
Interviewer: So, you refuse to answer that kind of question?
Almontaser: Yes, I refuse.
Interviewer: I just want to be clear that you feel it's unfair to be asked whether you support violence or not?
Almontaser: It's unfair for me to be asked. If this is something being asked of other public school principals and they're all going to respond to it, I would gladly be happy to respond to it.
Nov. 19, 2008 update: From a newsletter just sent out by the Arab American Family Support Center (an organization mentioned several times before in this weblog):
KGIA is Enrolling Students for 2009
It's that time of year already when parents and students begin choosing their school for the upcoming academic year. The Khalil Gibran International Academy with [sic] be adding an eighth grade class next year and will have space in all three grades (6th, 7th and 8th) for new students.
If you know of a student who wants to enroll or want more information, please contact our Program Manager at KGIA, Danielle Jefferis at 718.522.2119 ext. 1 or danielle at aafncsy.org.
Danielle Jefferis, of both KGIA and AAFSC.
Never mind that the e-mail address should be aafscny.org, what is interesting here is that the KGIA program manager, Danielle Jefferis, uses her AAFSC address, showing how tight the school and the Arab-advocacy organization remain to this day. Also of note, if one goes to the AAFSC website
, Jefferis is listed there with a KGIA title, not an AAFSC one ("School Coordinator, Khalil Gibran International Academy"). Or in AAFSC's own words:
AAFSC maintains an active presence and a full-time coordinator to liaise between students, families and AAFSC, ensuring that all of our services are available. Our collaborating partners also offer academic and cultural enrichment opportunities for KGIA students.
Nov. 23, 2008 update: Almontaser starred at this year's CAIR annual dinner in Washington today, joined on the dais by Keith Ellison and Siraj Wahhaj, further solidifying her already strong Islamist credentials. Speaking in the Islamist mode, she told the CAIR audience: "These two years, ladies and gentlemen, have been trying and at the same time heartwarming. This experience has strengthened my connection to God, the merciful. I know He is on my side through this because He willed this for me." Her talk got a rousing applause.
Dec. 7, 2008 update: The KGIA continues to slide into oblivion, as documented by Seth Wessler in a sympathetic article, "Khalil Gibran School Silenced in the Classroom." It includes these bits of information:
"Sixth-grade students at the newly opened Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn were probably surprised last year when they opened their Arabic books to find photographs cut from the pages. 'We cut pictures of mosques out of the Arabic books,' said Hassan Omar, an Egyptian man who until last spring taught Arabic and humanities at the academy, the country's first Arabic-English, dual-language public school. 'We are afraid that anything could be taken out of context'."
"The school has cut back on Arabic language instruction [and] is no longer set to become a high school. … None of the original [four] teachers remain at the school, and those who have left claim they were fired or forced to leave because of the stress.
"Teachers say the curriculum no longer builds a discussion of Middle Eastern history and culture into course work, and students and parents say students are being inadequately instructed in all subjects. According to Danielle Jeffries, who worked at the school, Arabic language instruction has been cut back by a period per week, and some parents say it is even more. Parents, who wrote a letter to the Department of Education, complained widely that they have been given little access to the school, and their children are without the necessary resources, books and staffing."
"Arab teachers say they were disrespected and scrutinized by administrators. 'We're treated as if we'll touch the kids with our magic wands and they will become terrorists,' said Omar. These concerns led Arabic language teachers to stop teaching students words such as salaam alaikum and inshallah, which are both used popularly despite their vaguely theological etymology—the usage is akin to saying 'god bless you' in response to a sneeze."
Wessler blames this sorry state of affairs on "a network of conservative organizations and their media outlets," including myself.
June 27, 2009 update: Can Almontaser resist any Islamist organization? Kenny Gamble's Muslim Alliance in North America lists her along with representatives of CAIR, ICNA, ISNA, and MSA as members of its "Task Force for the National Campaign for Healing and Reconciliation." MANA's description of its origins tells how a coteries of Islamists ("including Siraj Wahhaj, Zaid Shakir, Hamza Yusuf, Talib Abdur Rashid, Asim Abdur Rashid, Ihsan Bagby, R. Mukhtar Curtis, Abdul Hakim Jackson, Amir al-Islam") lay behind its founding in 2005.
Comment: Cutting through the sweet-talk, the purpose of this campaign would seem to be to bring all Muslim institutions in the United States firmly under Islamist control.
July 17, 2009 update: "Supreme Court Justice Bert A. Bunyan, in Springer v. Almontaser, 14303/08, dismissed a defamation suit brought by the [Stop the Madrassa Coalition], finding Ms. Almontaser's stalking comment amounted to nonactionable opinion, since it was made in "the context of a very public, ongoing and emotional dispute" concerning the school at a time when New York City was "fearful of terrorism and violence."
That unique report on the judge's decision comes from Noeleen G. Walder, "Former Principal Did Not Libel Her Critics, Court Says," in the New York Law Journal (available by subscription only).
the coalition's president, Sara Springer, on behalf of the group, and two individual members sued Ms. Almontaser for defamation in state court. The action claimed her 2007 statement constituted defamation per se, since it accused the group of crimes.
Ms. Almontaser countered that her comments amounted to "rhetorical hyperbole." But the coalition maintained that Ms. Almontaser's "carefully crafted" statement cited the same language as factual allegations in her federal suit against the city.
Justice Bunyan sided with Ms. Almontaser. A defamation action must be based on published assertions of fact, rather than subjective opinions, he wrote. In determining whether a statement is defamatory, a court must look at both the immediate and broader social context in which the published statement was made, Justice Bunyan noted.
Ms. Almontaser held the news conference following months of public criticism, led "in large part by the Coalition," the judge said. He observed that her statement, when read or heard in its entirety, was replete with language such as "storm of hate," "victim of serious injustice" and "Gaza-style uprising" that could only be interpreted as opinion.
Justice Bunyan said it was significant that right before accusing the coalition of stalking and harassing her, Ms. Almontaser blamed the group for conducting a "smear campaign."
"Accordingly, since defendant made the complained of statement in the context of a very public, ongoing and emotional dispute" about a school that garnered "extensive media coverage" at a time when the city was "fearful of terrorism and violence, the language complained of constitutes nonactionable opinion," he concluded.
The judge also rejected the coalition's claim that Ms. Almontaser's federal court action was relevant to the defamation suit, finding statements made in the course of a judicial proceeding are "absolutely privileged."
David Yerushalmi, representing the coalition, said he would appeal.
Comment: The judge's reasoning suggests that any person who speaks out in the course of a "very public, ongoing and emotional dispute" is henceforth immune from libel charges, a very strange notion.
Sep. 2, 2009 update: Win some, lose some. If Almontaser won against Stop the Madrassa, she lost her case against the state. The New York Times reports in "Lawsuit Filed by Principal Fired From Arabic School Is Dismissed":
Ms. Almontaser participated in an interview "pursuant to her official duties as acting interim principal" of the school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the court ruled. "This speech is not protected by the First Amendment."
Sep. 17, 2009 update: In a letter to New York City's Mayor Michael Bloomberg from sixteen Islamist, Arab, and leftist organizations (including the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the colorfully named New York Collective of Radical Educators), we learn of a host of discontents and problems at KGIA. Excerpts from the list of complaints:
What steps will the school leadership take both to fill all of KGIA's seats and to fill the proposed requirement of 50% Arabic speaking students?
In the 2008-09 school year, the majority of the school's 120 seats remained empty, with only 52 students enrolled (KGIA website).
Students and parents report that, in both its first- and second-year of operation, no more than 10% of the students enrolled in the school were Arabic-speaking students. Many of Brooklyn's Arab community organizations say that school leaders have made no efforts to recruit students through their groups.…
KGIA started out with Arabic language classes taught only three times per week for one hour each. All instruction in history, math, science, and other content area classes was in English. According to the KGIA's 2008-09 School Survey, 15% of the students surveyed stated that they were not offered Arabic language instruction at all. Parents and students have also reported that Arabic language instruction was provided by a substitute teacher who was not permanently certified to teach and not permanently certified to teach Arabic. …
Parents and students report no Arabic cultural instruction. …
In the 2007-2008 school year, all but two of the school's faculty and staff were terminated, forced to resign, or resigned of their own will; two of these have filed lawsuits against the DOE.
Mar. 12, 2010 update: In a non-binding 8-page letter of "determination" signed by Spencer Lewis Jr., the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the New York City Department of Education discriminated against Almontaser in firing her. Paul Marks, New York City's deputy chief of labor and employment law in the Law Department, was not impressed. Speaking for the city, he replied that the DoE "in no way discriminated against Ms. Almontaser and she will not be reinstated. If she continues to pursue litigation, we will vigorously defend against her groundless allegations."
Mar. 16, 2010 update: In a brave, informed editorial, the New York Post responds to the EEOC decision. Excepts:
Does a radical Muslim have a right to head a New York City public school? The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission seems to think so. That panel ruled last week that city officials discriminated against Debbie Almontaser when they forced her out as principal of the taxpayer-funded madrassa she helped found.
Yet the Khalil Gibran International Academy, which is billed as an Arabic-themed public school, was a bad idea from the start—and Almontaser was an even worse choice to lead it. … At best, in other words, Almontaser—a self-styled "moderate"—was willfully blind to the reality of Islamic terror and has no business teaching city schoolkids for that reason alone. More likely, she played the folks at the Education Department for fools.
Referring to KGIA, the editorial closes with, "Just close it, already."
Mar. 16, 2010 update bis: Of a sudden, new turmoil at KGIA. Holly Anne Reichert, who has been the school's principal since Jan. 9, 2008, abruptly resigned her position and, according to a DoE spokesman, she "decided to leave Khalil Gibran International Academy to take [a] position as a literacy coach at a secondary school in Queens."
In itself, that smells fishy – principals do not normally volunteer to become "literacy coaches," much less so in the middle of the school year. More suspect is that this resignation takes place just days after the EEOC decision. More suspect yet is Reicheret's replacement: he is Beshir Abdellatif, a person of Arab heritage. According to Almontaser's lawyer, Alan Levine, the change is "curious" and could interpreted "as an attempt to deflect the conclusion of the [EEOC] that the DOE had engaged in discrimination."
Mar. 18, 2010 update: "Everyday terror at 'Intifada' HS" by Andrea Peyser in the New York Post paints KGIA as perhaps the school with "the worst record" in New York City," writes Peyser. Her research finds that KGIA this year
has suspended more than one-third of its student body for infractions ranging from hitting to weapons. "Every day, they're fighting," said Voneeda Black, who nervously sends her 6-year-old to the elementary school with which Gibran shares a building. "You don't see parents," she said. "Three or four times a week, there are cops here, if not more."
Another mother, Deborah Rivers, comments that "There's a lot of name-calling and walking around the hallways."
Since it opened, the tiny school on the edge of DUMBO [Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass] has had one of the city's highest rates of violence. A teacher was taunted by kids as a "terrorist" in 2008. It's gotten steadily worse.
More than a third—one in three! -- of Gibran's 114 students, grades six through eight, have been suspended this year, according to the Department of Education. Twenty-two were yanked from school for five days. Eight kids were considered so rowdy or dangerous, they were banned from class six to 10 days. Nineteen fights led to student injuries or intimidation. In two other cases, weapons were used. This number has climbed from last year's 17 violent incidents and 26 suspensions.
June 2, 2010 update: Despite the EEOC determination in her favor (see Mar. 12, 2010 update, above), Almontaser has dropped her lawsuit for wrongful termination against New York City. Stephen Brown reports for the Brooklyn Paper that she
said that the prospect of a protracted court case that would have thrust her back into the spotlight was too much to bear. "I have decided that it is time for me to move on with my professional and personal life," said Almontaser. "Additional litigation of the discrimination claim would mean re-living the unfortunate and painful events of August, 2007."
Connecting Beshir Abdellatif's accession as KGIA principal to the EEOC finding, Almontaser said: "While it is shameful that it took a finding of discrimination by an independent federal agency to force the city's hand, I hope that this appointment will bring the stability and leadership to the school that it so badly needs."
Mar. 4, 2011 update: The DoE released an "Educational Impact Statement" today with the catchy title "The Proposed Re-siting and Co-location of Khalil Gibran International Academy (13K592) with the Metropolitan Corporate Academy (15K530) and the Brooklyn School for Career Development (75K753) in School Building K806." It indicates two important changes for KGIA, subject to a vote by the Panel for Educational Policy on April 28: (1) The school will go from being a middle school to a high school,
At the conclusion of the 2012-2013 year, Khalil Gibran would no longer serve eighth grade or any middle school grades. Khalil Gibran would continue to gradually phase-in high school grades by adding one grade each year, until it reaches full scale in 2015-2016 serving 9-12th grade..
(2) The DOE plans for the school to move to a new building in Brooklyn in the 2012-2013 school year.Public hearings on this subject will be held on April 4 and 14 (at which, "Interpretation services will be provided in Arabic").
Comment: It's hard to make out from the outside what motivates this decision but, once again, it points to turmoil at KGIA and probably to problems with this wrong-headed school.
Apr. 6, 2011 update: The first of those hearings took place on April 4 and is covered in an article titled "Fatwa! City will kill Gibran middle school due to poor numbers, performance" by Dana Sauchelli and Gersh Kuntzman in The Brooklyn Paper. The title seems hyped – as nothing in the Educational Impact Statement indicates the basic idea of an Arabic-language school has been abandoned.
The article emphases the lack of support for KGIA. "At a hearing on Monday night to discuss the death of the middle school, no teachers and only two parents showed up to defend the current program — a far cry from 2007, when supporters eagerly rallied for the Gibran Academy."
This lack of interest, the authors write, reflects a declining enrollment.
"The number of students attending the school each year has substantially declined," the city said, citing 60 sixth-graders in 2007 compared to the mere 35 this year. "In 2010, Khalil Gibran … received the lowest number of sixth grade applications in District 13. Only 18 percent of students who applied to Khalil Gibran ranked it within their top three choices. Declining enrollment … suggests that District 13 families are seeking other options better matched to their interests and needs." … the school "struggled to recruit and retain middle school students." Worse, the school's most recent report card gave it F marks for both "student performance" and "student progress." …
The city will now try to turn the Arabic-language and culture school into a high school, and move it from its current location on Navy Street in Fort Greene to the Metropolitan Corporate Academy building on Schermerhorn Street in Downtown. … "The school's goal is to prepare students for college and successful careers and to foster an understanding of different cultures, a love of learning, and desire for excellence in all of its students,"
Additionally, it bears noting that the KGIA website, http://kgiany.org/, is currently not functioning ("The web address you entered could not be found") and has not been for an indefinite period of time.
June 27, 2011 update: The Panel for Educational Policy approved KGIA's closing for the school year 2011-12 and then re-opening, this time as a high school and in a new location, its third, in downtown Brooklyn, in September 2012.
June 28, 2011 update: Mary Frost provides more details on the big decision in "Big Changes for Arabic-Themed Brooklyn School Khalil Gibran Academy":
The new high school would be "co-located" inside a building at 362 Schermerhorn St. near Flatbush Avenue, which presently houses two other schools. One of these, the Metropolitan Corporate Academy, is being phased out. The other, the Brooklyn School for Career Development, serves emotionally disturbed high schoolers. "We're confident that the new location — accessible to families seeking an Arab-language education — combined with a curriculum that offers students Arab-language skills and tools to succeed after high school, will put Khalil Gibran on a path to improvement," said DOE spokesperson Matthew Mittenthal on Tuesday. "The school's operators and community partners have committed to ensuring the school will have an IB (International Baccalaureate) program," he added. …
According to the DOE, the school's partners support the conversion to a high school. But some longtime supporters say that closing Khalil Gibran's middle school would defeat the school's original purpose. Communities in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy said in a statement, "The school's original plan was to begin with middle school, so that students would have grades 6-12 to become truly bilingual, which is the purpose of a dual language program. The proposed high school will have little in common with the original KGIA that the DOE has killed."
June 30, 2011 update: Curious how the two leading Islamist school efforts in the United States, Khalil Gibran International Academy and Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, are collapsing simultaneously.
May 24, 2012 update: That high school version of KGIA appears to have vaporized but, thanks to $250,000 from the Qatar Foundation, the K-5 Hamilton Heights public school in Harlem on Amsterdam Avenue, also known as P.S. 368, offers Arabic lessons. This year, it's just 12 of them but next year it's supposed to be 200 of them. Debbie Almontaser sniffed at the effort: "It's not as serious of a program as I would like. My goal was for students to be equally proficient in Arabic as in English."
Related Topics: Academia, Muslims in the United States
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