Debbie Does Damage Control: Khalil Gibran principal designate Almontaser lamely apologises for defending "NYC Intifada" slogan
August 7, 2007
The principal of an Arabic-language public school due to open next month is under fire for taking what several Jewish groups are condemning as a soft stance on the violent Palestinian Arab uprising known as the intifada. The principal, Debbie Almontaser, was quoted yesterday interpreting T-shirts that say "Intifada NYC" as not an endorsement of violence but rather "an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society ... and shaking off oppression." She followed the word's literal Arabic meaning, which is "struggle" or "uprising."
In a statement late yesterday afternoon, Ms. Almontaser backed away from her comments, reported by the New York Post, saying she regretted suggesting the T-shirt slogan was appropriate. "By minimizing the word's historical associations I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence," she said. "That view is anathema to me and the very opposite of my life's work."
Ms. Almontaser has previously led inter-group tolerance lessons for city schoolchildren, and her supporters say her school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, will bridge differences by teaching a diverse group of students the Arabic language alongside a traditional college preparatory curriculum.
The T-shirts were produced by a group called Arab Women Active in Art and Media and spotted by members of a watchdog group that opposes Khalil Gibran, the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, at an Arab cultural fair last month. The shirts sport the letters " NYC" in bold white type, with the word "INTIFADA" curving around them in an arc, according to photos on the coalition's Web site.
"At first we didn't know what to make of it," a representative of the group, Pamela Hall, said. After the activists traced the art group to Ms. Almontaser Â-- it shares a building with a Yemeni association she founded Â-- Ms. Hall said they decided the T-shirts represented their worst fears about Khalil Gibran: that it will advocate terrorist violence.
A rabbi who is an adviser to Khalil Gibran, Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, said he was also concerned by yesterday's story in the Post, but he said he made sure to call Ms. Almontaser for her perspective before making a judgment.
In a conversation, Rabbi Bachman said Ms. Almontaser assured him that she did not condone the T-shirts. He said he is confident that Khalil Gibran will be an antidote to terrorism, not a perpetrator of it. "In the wake of both 9/11 and the perilous state of the world, with several wars moving all around us," he said, "it's I think a beautiful opportunity to bring students from a variety of backgrounds all together to learn about Arabic culture." Rabbi Bachman also praised the opportunity for students of Arab origin to learn about American values in a public school.
The executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, condemned the T-shirts in a statement, but a spokesman, Ken Bandler, said the committee does not condemn the school. "We're hopeful that it will be a solid part of the public school system," Mr. Bandler said. "We'll see what happens."
Chancellor Joel Klein has supported Khalil Gibran despite protests. The school has also received grants from the Bush administration, through a program created to promote Arabic- and Chinese-language education.
A U.S. Department of Education spokesman, Jim Bradshaw, said he had no comment about Khalil Gibran.
Among the critics to emerge before she released her statement yesterday were several groups that had extended close support to the school, set to open in Brooklyn this September.
"I feel like a fool. I think Abe Foxman should feel like a fool. And certainly Joel Klein if he sponsors it will be a fool," a CUNY board member who had decided to support the school, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, said.
Mr. Foxman's group, the Anti-Defamation League, had defended the Khalil Gibran school against charges of ties to Islamic terrorism, vowing it would actually abet discrimination. Yesterday, however, the league's New York State regional director, Joel Levy, said he sent an e-mail message to the Department of Education after reading Ms. Almontaser's comments, which he called troubling. "The word intifada has a very specific meaning, and it's the violent uprising in the Palestinian territories," he said. "We can't ignore that."