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


  1. Anonymous8/15/2007

    Why can't we teach tolerance?

  2. Thank you, "AT", for posting on this! I was beginning to feel like only Muslims and Arabs noticed or were upset by the firing.

    Since when has explaining the meaning and context of words been a BAD thing for teachers to do?? You are right to point out the DoE's weird role in this mess. But as I posted at my ow blog (insert shameless plug for http://soboredwiththeusa.blogspot.com/), the thing that upset me most about this was how quick the supposedly liberal, multicultural-minded parents of Park Slope were to indulge in (or at least kowtow to) Islamaphobia. People love peace and diversity as long as people of different religions/ideas don't go to school with their kids, I guess.

    There's an old Phil Ochs song about would-be liberals with a line that goes "I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes, as long as they don't move next door". Some things just don't change!

    BTW, this is a great blog...glad I came across it!

  3. Anonymous8/26/2007

    When you come to America, the great melting pot, you assimilate, not differentiate. You do not come here to teach and learn in the language of the people who slaughtered hundreds of innocent people.

    When my German and Italian relatives arrived here, they learned to speak English. And they were happy to do it.

    If you do not want to assimilate into American culture and contribute to it, then do not come here. It's that easy. If I go to Saudi Arabia, I do not expect for everyone to bend to my thoughts and needs. I have been there twice, and know what my limits were. I graciously accepted them and tried to adapt to the requirements of the time. BTW - I was there during Ramadan, and observed the rules.

    How dare you come here and expect special treatment.

  4. Anonymous8/27/2007

    Sierra Matt,

    Your German ancestors must not have lived in Minnesota then, because there were whole decades where you could find entire towns where nobody spoke anything but German or Norwegian or Sweadish...and people who grew up speaking their parents native language and didn't learn English until they started school are still living here in Minnesota.

    Come on, this mantra of immigrants of the past learning english is a myth. Some did, some didn't, according to their ability, opportunity and necessity. Much like today.

    If immigration were so flawless and fast and simple in the past, how come you had organizations agitating against them and trying to run them out of the country?

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.