8.15.2007

Tribal War Against the NYC Khalil Gibran Academy?

After a year long campaign against a new public school offering instruction in the Arabic language and culture--the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a cabal of conservative public school critics, rightwing media and anti-Muslim agitators forced the resignation of Debbie Almonstaser, the new school's founding principal.

Ms. Almontaser was forced to resign after she inadvertently gave the school's enemies an opening by giving the NYPost a politically incorrect definition of the loaded word "intifada". Instead of condemning the use of the word, Ms. Almontaser explained that tee-shirts for a Yemeni women's group featuring the offending word was an expression of liberation for women raised under repressive traditional cultures.

Apparently, the word does also mean "to shake off". Regardless, it's use in any context for some in NYC is unacceptable and dangerous. Ms Almontaser's explanation was viewed as supporting the connotation given the word by rebellious Palestinians fighting Israel in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps acknowledging the tribal aspect of the school's opposition, NYC public school officials quickly named Danielle Salzberg, an experienced educator of Jewish heritage, as the Almontaser's replacement. It's unclear if this move will work or if it'll lead to increased efforts to kill the school. Almost instantly the fire has been redirected to Ms Salzberg--and there's probably a whole lot more to come.

For mayor Edward I. Koch believes that firing Almontaser was unwarranted and replacing her with Ms. Salzberg strange. And he offers this warning: “To put a principal totally unimmersed in the culture seems like spitting in their eye.”

Lost in the mix is the strange role of the NYC Department of Education, and its partner, New Visions for Public Schools. It appears that the DOE and New Visions have fallen down in their responsibility to adequately support a first-time principal and a school which everyone knew would be subject to deep hostilities.

Additionally, why was Ms. Almontaser allowed to answer questions from a newspaper known to be hostile to the school and its founder? This is especially interesting since the DOE is known for tightly controlling media access to its staff members.

It's clear that deep-seeded tribal hatred overpowered reason in the case of Debbie Almontaser and the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Almontaser tries to offer an educational option to help NYC students succeed and she gets the boot for an unfortunate linguistic/political faux pa. Meanwhile, all sorts of excuses are offered for why DOE incompetents and even criminals can not be fired. This is tribal politics at its worse.

How New Arabic School Aroused Old Rivalries (by Julie Bosman and Jennifer Medina, NYTimes - 8.15.07)
Khalil Gibran International Academy: NYC's 1st Arabic Public School - 2.18.07