Six days after I moved to New York in August 2007, Debbie Almontaser — an educator, inter-faith worker, and founding principle of the city’s first dual-language Arabic public school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy — was forced out of her job. Her employers at the New York City Department of Education had succumbed to a months-long smear campaign led by the NY Post and a swelling group of critics who called themselves the Stop the Madrassa Coalition. Terrorist, radical, Islamist, indoctrinator. “Dhabah,” they called her, attempting to paint her and the others who helped guide the school as alien and enemy.
As this was happening, a very different story was developing. Arabic, the language under siege by those opposed to the dual-language academy, had become the fastest-growing language in the United States. According to a November 2007 report by the Modern Languages Association, there was a 127% jump in Arabic class enrollment between 2002 and 2006, pushing it into the number ten spot.
Almontaser’s case dragged on. After a painful stretch with no movement and no news, earlier this month, a gleam in the distance: the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the New York City Department of Education had discriminated against Almontaser “on account of her race, religion and national origin” when they forced her to resign in 2007. Days later, the current principal stepped down.
I wrote about the Khalil Gibran saga over one year. Here’s an excerpt. Better brew some tea, it’s a hefty one.
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“It’s called reproduction theory,” explained Michelle Fine, a distinguished professor of psychology and urban education at the City University of New York. Fine has been following the Khalil Gibran saga for months.
“Schools reproduce the dominant class formations, the dominant hatreds, the dominant exclusions,” she said. New York City has a long, rich legacy of small, themed schools — schools that reflect an increased desire for choice, for diversity of curriculum, and personalization. Three of New York’s public high schools already offer introductory Arabic as part of their general curriculum, and the specialized focus of Khalil Gibran International Academy was in keeping with that legacy.
“In the way that schools tend to reflect larger trends and culture, small schools tend to reflect some of the more progressive trends in the larger culture,” said Fine. “It seemed timely and important to have a school that was raising up issues around Arabs and Muslims, Muslims and Christians, Christians and Jews.”
The issues raised, however, were too controversial for Khalil Gibran’s keepers — the Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools — to handle. Paranoia and racist stereotypes about the Arabic language trumped attempts to deliver on Khalil Gibran’s stated goal “to create bridges of understanding across cultural and other differences.” The DOE’s reaction to months of misleading, negative press undermined the very essence of the school.
“In retrospect, New Visions and the Board of Ed pulling their support should have been a surprise, but it wasn’t a surprise,” said Fine. “They get cold feet when they get attacked. But it was such a profoundly unethical move to not stand behind her, and in fact, to set her up to take the phone call, and then to basically give her a Sophie’s Choice — It’s you, or the school.”
December 6, 2007. Almontaser wore yellow on the afternoon she met Judge Sidney Stein of Manhattan District Court for his ruling. The courtroom was packed with fidgety bodies, some shifting with anticipation or nervousness, while others looked restless during the Judge’s long preamble. They had been waiting for months to hear the results of Almontaser’s lawsuit against the City and the DOE, and many were anxious to know if she might soon return to her post as principal of Khalil Gibran.
Stein’s answer to Almontaser’s allegations was long-winded, but unequivocal. The fact that she was on the telephone with a DOE representative during her interview with Post reporter Bennett, and the fact that she conducted the interview as a spokesperson for Khalil Gibran, made it clear that she spoke as part of her duties as an employee. Her definition of intifada, then — factually correct as it may have been — was not protected speech under the First Amendment, and made her subject to discipline by her employer. He denied her request for a new, unbiased application process for the position of principal.
Almontaser’s lawyer, Alan Levine, reacted immediately to Stein’s announcement. He asked both for the chance to appeal this decision, and asked that the DOE pause their hiring efforts until Almontaser’s case could be resolved. Levine and his client were granted the appeal, but the DOE made no attempt to stall their hiring plans.
A month later, Holly Anne Reichert was announced as Khalil Gibran’s newest principal — the school’s third — on January 8, 2008. Reporters immediately quizzed Reichert, an Arabic speaker, on the most pressing, most fundamental concern in heading this troubled school: the definition of the word intifada. Reichert reacted sharply to the word, and cautioned that it “should not be used frivolously, for example on a T-shirt.”
Reichert’s condemning response, it seems, was the correct one.
January 31, 2008, a brisk and sunny Thursday morning. Another day, another press conference, this time at the steps of city hall. Members of CSKGIA were present, but they certainly were not invited.
Stop the Madrassa and its offshoot organization, Citizens for American Values in Public Education, had organized what was their second press conference, and did so hot on the heels of a recent Khalil Gibran event where teachers, led by Sean Grogan, UFT Chapter Leader at Khalil Gibran, aired grievances and worries about the school’s future. Grogan and his peers decried the lack of leadership and organization at the school, criticized the DOE for failing to provide them with adequate space, resources, and called for a stronger commitment to the school, starting with the reinstatement of the principal who founded it. If Almontaser had defined the word “madrassa” to reporters, someone asked, would she have faced criticism for that at well?
At their own press conference days later, representatives from Stop the Madrassa called for the immediate closure of Khalil Gibran. Stuart Kaufman, a tall and ruddy-faced spokesman for the group, addressed the strange mix of reporters, CSKGIA affiliates, and Stop the Madrassa members gathered before him.
“Concern is spreading across the United States,” he boomed. “We created Citizens in Support of American Values in Public Education because of a demand that people are out there that don’t know what’s going on in their own school systems.”
A young woman with a notepad, her head covered by a warm toque, had a question. “Do you have the same feeling toward all other dual-language schools?”
“I personally feel that way, yes,” said Kaufman.
The woman pressed him further, asking if his dislike of the Khalil Gibran school had to do with its founders being of Arab decent. Kaufman denied this.
“No, because they’re radical Islamists,” he said. “I have nothing against people of Arab descent.”
The conversation became heated, and the young woman with the notepad climbed a few large city hall steps to stand next to Kaufman, and addressed the crowd loudly:
“I think what’s interesting is that, despite how weak the argument is, the Department of Education actually caters to these organizations. They’re the reason the school is in trouble right now! They’re the reason —”
Kaufman cut her off — “Now, we should find out who this lady is! Will you tell us who you are?”
Oh yes, she said. Mona Eldahry was her name — the co-founder of Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, the community group responsible for the Intifada NYC t-shirts, and an active member of Communities in Support of Khalil Gibran International Academy.
“This is one of the founders of the Khalil Gibran International Academy!” Kaufman exclaimed. “So she has an agenda!”
The crowd protested — Eldahry had nothing to do with the founding or the design of the school, someone shouted. At this point the press conference disintegrated into small clusters of people: arguing, pontificating, asking questions, snapping photos, and documenting the fracas.
“They should be ashamed of themselves for the way they spoke today,” said Donna Nevel, a member of CSKGIA. “They’ve had one agenda, which is to have the school shut down. They’re using the problems at the school now as a pretext, to achieve their goal, and that goal is to shut down a school for one reason: because the language is Arabic. There are 60 or 70 dual language programs in New York City offering wonderful education — ”
“That’s a falsehood!” Kaufman, who had been listening from the sidelines, cut in. “We are not pushing for the shutdown of the school because it teaches the Arabic language. We are pushing for the shut-down of the school because of the people that we believe are behind it, and because of the concerns we have about the things that might be taught at the school. So do not, please, try to lay on us the concept of bigotry or anti-Arabic. We believe in teaching Arabic in the public schools.”
Nevel and Kaufman argued back and forth for several minutes, one imploring and the other defensive.
Off to the left, Irene Alter, a co-founder of Stop the Madrassa, shook her head. She didn’t understand why anyone would want to create an Arabic school in the first place.
“There has been no demand for it. In all honesty,” she said. “Most kids take Spanish. It’s one of the easier languages for them to master and it’s a beautiful language. That’s of course my prejudice because that’s what I teach! The letters are the same letters, it’s phonetic… Kids tend to go with things that are easier for them. This is the reality.”
Off to the right, a surreal exchange was taking place between a group of young women in hijabs and two older women critical of the need for an Arabic language school. Why not just learn the language in the streets, the way most other languages are learned, asked the first? The second, lipstick smeared across her front teeth, wanted to know — “What would happen if we would go to your country of origin, trying to impose our way of life, our religion, Christian, and our teaching onto you? Would we get our heads cut off or what?”
Almontaser was back in court on February 5, 2008, for her hearing at the United States Court of Appeals. Many of Almontaser’s most outspoken supporters, including Eldahry, Nevel, and Fine, filled the benches on her side of the court room — a section Fine jokingly referred to as “the bride’s side.” On the groom’s side sat Paul Frederick Marks, the attorney representing the defense.
Almontaser’s own attorney, Levine, did his best to convince the panel of judges before him that his client’s definition of “intifada” should not have been viewed as part of her official duties as principal. The judges, in the meantime, seemed more concerned with Marks’ side of the story. They wanted to know just one thing — what had Almontaser done wrong?
“Well,” said Marks, “she basically rendered an expression that was potentially disruptive to the operation of the school.”
The judges were unsatisfied with this answer, and pressed Marks further. The Post reporter did not accurately record what she said during the
interview, they said. If the press garbled her words, was it fair that she be punished?
Marks replied: “The potential for disruption did not cease with the publication of the Post article. That, you might say, was actually the beginning.”
But what, asked the judges, did she do wrong?
“She made statements that were inflammatory,” said Marks. “She started discussing ‘infitada’.” Marks struggled with the word, mispronouncing it perhaps out of nervousness, perhaps out of his unfamiliarity with the term.
“I had never heard of infitada before I started working on this,” confessed Marks. “I had to look it up on Google.”
“And when you looked it up,” asked one judge, “you found that her interpretation was precisely correct?” Marks said that yes, in fact, some of the definitions he found online matched the answers provided by Almontaser in her interview with the Post.
“You better not tell anyone what you found on Google,” said the judge, addressing Marks. “Your job may be in jeopardy here.”