Silenced in the Classroom

By Seth Wessler

Illustrator: ©2009 New York Times – Redux/Photo by Annie Tritt

Photo: ©2009 New York Times – Redux/Photo by Annie Tritt
Debbie Almontaser, center, is suing to be reinstated as principal.

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.”

It was not exactly what teachers and the planning team had expected. The Khalil Gibran school was to have been a refuge in the midst of post-Sept. 11 New York City, a place where a mixed group of Arabic speakers and non-Arabic speakers would learn together. The school, which opened in 2007 with a 6th-grade class, was designed to grow into a middle and high school in the spirit of the more than 65 dual-language schools in New York City, which teach in Spanish, Creole, Russian, and other languages. By graduation, it was expected that Khalil Gibran students would have a command of Arabic and an understanding of the cultural context in which the language exists.

But this past September, many of the original 6th-grade students had not returned as 7th graders. The school has cut back on Arabic language instruction, is no longer set to become a high school, and has moved twice in its first year of operation. The founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, was forced to resign following a media storm over the meaning of the word intifada, and the school is being led by its third principal. None of the original teachers remain at the school, and those who have left claim they were fired or forced to leave because of the stress.

It came to this, critics say, because the school was targeted by a network of conservative organizations and their media outlets that have long been in the business of attacking educators with any perceived links to Palestine. In the words of Jeffrey Weisenfeld, one of the cohort’s most prominent speakers and a powerful trustee at the City University of New York, the school would have been a breeding ground for an Islamist “religious crusade” and anti-Israel extremism posing “a danger to the social fabric of the country.”

While the idea of 6th graders leading a religious crusade might sound ridiculous, the conservative groups succeeded in their attacks. Today, the school appears mired in an atmosphere of fear, tension, and instability.

The idea for the Khalil Gibran International Academy began in 2005. The New Visions for Public Schools, an education reform nonprofit organization in New York, proposed the idea to the New York City Department of Education, which agreed.

For many Arab families, the school offered the possibility of moving beyond racism and fear. “Since 9/11, Arabs have been targeted in New York,” said one Arab parent who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation by school administrators. “We wanted to have people come together to become global citizens and to have a different idea about Arabs.”

For others, like Serena Fakir, a 12-year-old girl of mixed Arab and South Asian descent, it was an opportunity to learn Arabic. “In my family, I feel a little bad sometimes that I am the only one who doesn’t speak Arabic,” she said.

As New Visions began looking for someone to lead the school’s design and implementation, public officials and community members repeatedly recommended Debbie Almontaser, an Arab and Muslim American woman of Yemeni descent with a long history as a community leader, educator, and interreligious dialogue builder. “She is a person who brings people together,” said Carmen Farina, the recently retired deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

Almontaser spent more than a year developing plans for the school. “I wanted what we taught our students to be relevant to all communities, locally and globally, for a better understanding of the world we live in,” she said in a recent interview.

But as the school moved forward, a trickle, then a torrent of reaction burst forth. “The hate blogs went up upon the naming of the school,” said Adam Rubin, who has recently left his position as the director of policy and research at New Visions. “That was the big red flag.”

In April 2007, months before the school opened, the New York Sun (which shut down in October), a neoconservative daily paper, published an op-ed by Daniel Pipes, the director of the neoconservative think tank Middle East Forum. The New York Sun was a natural venue for Pipes. It began publication after Sept. 11 with financial backing from board members of right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise and Manhattan Institutes. Pipes’ editorial, titled “A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn,” referred to the Khalil Gibran school as a “madrassa,” the Arabic word for school that has come to be associated with Islamist extremism, and he called Almontaser by her given first name of Dhabah, even though she has called herself Debbie since she was a toddler.

Pipes’ stated problem, though, was not just Almontaser; it was the existence of the school itself. “Arabic-language instruction,” he wrote, “is inevitably laden with … Islamist baggage.”

Pipes refused to be interviewed for this story. He wrote via email, “I am approaching the school specifically from the vantage point of its Islamist content. In other words, I have little to say about race and color.”

Two months after his op-ed was published, a group calling itself Stop the Madrassa Community Coalition sprouted up. Pipes is an advisor to the group, which by many accounts has only a handful of members. These people, however, suddenly found the microphone handed to them whenever they wished to speak on conservative, pro-war and anti-immigrant news shows and blogs. The group’s members did not respond to requests to be interviewed.

Stop the Madrassa enlisted the help of Weisenfeld, who said the school was part of a larger “creeping” threat to the United States and the West in general because Islam is “a culture of the worship of death.”

Pipes, Weisenfeld, and several Stop the Madrassa members editorialized and blogged against the school. Their associates apparently tailed Almontaser wherever she made public appearances, trying to find information that could cast her as a radical.

One afternoon, a Stop the Madrassa member saw a T-shirt for sale during New York’s Arab Heritage Week. The shirt read “Intifada NYC” and was printed by the Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), a nonprofit that empowers Arab and Muslim girls to represent themselves and their communities through media.

The T-shirt was Pipes’ and Stop the Madrassa’s poison arrow. Almontaser sat on the board of an organization where AWAAM borrows office space, and though the T-shirt and AWAAM had no connection with the school, Stop the Madrassa accused Almontaser of supporting terrorism and harboring anti-Israel sentiments.

“All of the other news sources let the story go and saw that it was a ridiculous and unfounded accusation,” said Almontaser. But the New York Post called her three or four times a day. Though she refused repeatedly to be interviewed, fearing her views would be distorted, the Department of Education told her to do the interview, and against her better judgment she did, thinking that perhaps it would close the matter.

In August, the Post reporter, who interviewed Almontaser with a Department of Education staffer on the phone, pushed her to provide a literal definition of the word “intifada.” Almontaser provided the definition, which is a “shaking off,” the translation offered by many Arabic/English dictionaries. She then explained that it had come to be associated with violence because of the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Almontaser was careful with her wording.

On August 6, Almontaser opened the Post to see the headline, “City Principal Is ‘Revolting.'” The story misquoted her. It accused Almontaser of trivializing the violence of the Palestinian intifada. The Department of Education issued an apology on Almontaser’s behalf for words the Post had misquoted.

Three days later, the Post published a letter from Randi Weingarten, who was then the president of New York’s United Federation of Teachers. Weingarten, who has since been elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, assailed Almontaser for not condemning the word “intifada” and wrote that parents and teachers would be justified in worrying about Almontaser’s leadership.

Weingarten’s comments are widely believed to have been the tipping point that cost Almontaser her job, according to people close to the controversy. Weingarten, who holds a seat on the board of New Visions, rejects this assertion.

“I deeply regret that my comments were used as a basis of continuing that treatment because Debbie is an incredible educator and a gift to the city,” she said. “What ultimately happened I think is that the school system decided, for political reasons or based on merits, that Debbie was not going to cut it as a principal there and they used my comments as a way to make that decision. … I think they probably set her up.”

The day after Weingarten’s letter ran in the newspaper, says Almontaser, a deputy mayor gave her a clear ultimatum: either leave, or the school will be terminated. Under duress, she resigned as principal and took an administrative position in the Department of Education.

Almontaser is now suing the city, claiming that the termination was discriminatory and violated her First Amendment rights. A federal appellate court judge, Jon Newman, condemned the city. He remarked, “So if a city employee speaks to the press, they’re at risk that the press garbles their remarks, and then they get fired? That’s quite a position for the City of New York.”

The Department of Education refused to comment on the case.

Almontaser was not the first to be targeted by Pipes and his conservative allies. Many of those most active in the campaign against the Khalil Gibran school have long been involved in concerted and often successful blacklisting of professors perceived to have anti-American or anti-Israeli positions, which amounts to what some critics label a new McCarthyist assault on freedom of speech. The conservative groups in these attacks at university campuses have included Pipes’ Middle East Forum and its offshoot, Campus Watch, which monitors Middle East Studies programs and faculty for their positions on Palestine and Israel. They have also included the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which attacked professors who they deemed to be “unwilling to defend … civilization.” Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, are among this group’s founders. Numerous professors have apparently lost their tenure bids as a result of Pipes and his cohorts.

The difference in the case of the Khalil Gibran school, however, was that these groups moved from attacking college professors whose scholarship challenges their worldview to targeting a public school principal whose employer is the City of New York. Many community leaders insist that the city was complicit in these new attacks, and in response, they formed a new group called Communities in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. It’s made up of several community organizations?including AWAAM, Center for Immigrant Families, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice?and has been endorsed by dozens of other groups.

“Despite the attack by the right wing,” said Donna Nevel, a member of the Center for Immigrant Families, “had Debbie Almontaser received the support she deserved from the powers that be—the Mayor, the Chancellor, New Visions, the UFT President—the smear campaign would not have achieved its goals, and she would still be KGIA’s principal.”

Rashid Khalidi, a Modern Middle East historian at Columbia University who has been one of Pipes’ regular targets, agreed. “They should have fought back,” he said, referring to the city. “The only way to deal with these factions that tread in falsehood and intimidation is to push back as hard as possible.”

According to Larry Cohler-Esses, editor-at-large of The Jewish Week and author of an article titled “The New McCarthyism” for The Nation, nowadays “the mere fact of being Muslim can put one under suspicion in the eyes of these people.”

Almontaser’s hijab, her high-profile interreligious dialogue work, and her advocacy for Muslims and Arabs after Sept. 11 made her a prime target for Pipes and his allies. But it was their assertion of an anti-Israel perspective that appears to have been the lynchpin to rally support for Almontaser’s removal.

In a curious move that raises many questions, the first principal hired after Almontaser was a religious Jewish woman.

According to some of the school’s original students, parents, and teachers, the Khalil Gibran school retains little more than its name as it enters its second year. It is no longer a place where tolerance and respect are fostered. Hassan Omar, the humanities and Arabic teacher who felt so intimidated that he cut images of mosques from textbooks, remembered, “When I first heard about the school, I thought it was a dream, with a rigorous curriculum and intensive language program. The dream collapsed and became a nightmare.”

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. Teachers agree and say that they have not been supplied with the resources and support they have been promised. The school’s third location is far from its original site in a neighborhood that had a larger Arab community, and this, too, is preventing the original group of students from continuing as students there.

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.

Teachers’ efforts to protect themselves has not keep them safe, though. The four original teachers hired by Almontaser are no longer at the school. They were pushed out or left because of the stress, according to a number of people, including parents and educators at the school.

Sean Grogan, a young white man who taught science at the school until last May and was in his second year as a teacher, says he was subjected to a witch hunt for talking to the press about the lack of leadership and inadequate conditions inside the school, echoing what the federal appellate court judge had said about Almontaser. Grogan claims he was reprimanded at the school for things that were beyond his control, such as getting blamed for a student who got hurt during a science class. He also contends that the school administration was intent on gathering enough demerits to have him fired. Melanie Meyer, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, declined to talk about Grogan’s case, saying she couldn’t discuss specific personnel matters.

Other teachers told similar stories.

Hassan Omar said he was also fired from the school because of trumped-up and trivial accusations about his teaching, including that he neglected to use an overhead projector. He claimed there was no overhead projector in the classroom and that when he asked the new principal for instructions on how to improve his performance, she refused to help him.

While the school struggles, Stop the Madrassa continues its campaign against Almontaser, apparently not contented by her being fired. Three of the group’s members have filed a defamation suit against Almontaser for stating that members of the group have stalked her.

Though he believes he was wronged, Grogan was most emotional when he spoke about the students. “What happened to these kids? What did they learn from this? What they saw was teachers that love them, that cared for them, that they watched do the right thing and get crucified for it. What is that going to teach them?”

Twelve-year-old Fakir, who is no longer a student at the school, has already learned an unfortunate lesson.

“I know there are so many people being racist against the school,” she said. “I don’t read the articles, but everyone is against learning Arabic as a second language.”

Seth Wessler is a research associate with the Applied Research Center. Reprinted with permission of ColorLines magazine,