In her first public appearance since departing under fire from the Khalil Gibran International Academy, Debbie Almontaser, its former head, stood by as a cast of speakers called for her reinstatement — including several that drew criticism from critics who denounced them for extremism.
Almontaser, the former interim acting principal of KGIA, a new public middle school with a dual Arabic-English curriculum, stood with supporters in front of the Manhattan federal courthouse Monday as her lawyers filed suit against the city Department of Education. The suit charges that the department has refused to consider her application for the position of permanent principal.
Almontaser, an Arab American, seeks to return as head of the Brooklyn school she helped midwife into existence — a position to which the Education Department recruited her based on her long experience in interethnic relations, but which she then left under fire. Critics claimed the school and Almontaser herself harbor a radical Islamist agenda for young students. They pointed to Monday’s rally as evidence for their claim.
“They love us,” said Jeff Wiesenfeld of Stop the Madrassa, the school’s main opposition group, mocking Jews who came out with others to support Almontaser. The former principal, who still works for the Education Department, has developed strong long-term relationships with many Jewish and Christian groups during years of interfaith work.
Rally speakers included Rabbi Rolando Matalon, spiritual leader of B’nai Jeshurun; Michelle Fine, a professor of education at City University of New York; Robert Jackson, chairman of the New York City Council’s Education Committee; and several local union leaders.
But lead speaker at the gathering was Mona Eldahry, executive director of Arab Women in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), a group that produced T-shirts for its teen girl members bearing the message “Intifada NYC.”
It was the New York Post’s questions to Almontaser about these T-shirts and AWAAM to this group — which shared office space with another, unrelated organization on whose board Almontaser sat — that led to Almontaser’s downfall. Almontaser denied any connection to AWAAM.
In an interview with The Post last August, just two weeks before the new school opened, Almontaser sought to explain the meaning of the word “Intifada” after being asked about the T-shirts. A media storm of criticism rained down upon her for failing to simply condemn them.
At the rally, Eldahry hailed Almontaser for having refused to condemn the T-shirts.
Another speaker, City Council member and former Black Panther Charles Barron of Brooklyn, has made comments suggesting violence as a possible response to alleged police brutality in the black community. Earlier this year, Barron sparked a furor when he pushed to have the Council name a Brooklyn street after the late Sonny Carson, a self-described “anti-white” black activist who played a role in the Crown Heights riots against Lubavitch chasidim in 1992.
At the rally, Barron denounced Almontaser’s critics as “xenophobic” and “disrespectful.”
A young woman also spoke at the rally on behalf of the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, a group charged by some with having ties to Hamas, a Palestinian group responsible for numerous terrorist bombings. CAIR denies the charge.
“I ask the readership of The Jewish Week, now that they know who the supporters of this school are, are they happy?” Stop the Madrassa’s Wiesenfeld asked. “Are they comfortable? Does this give them confidence that [the Gibran school] is one that is properly controlled and supervised?”
Alan Levine, Almontaser’s attorney, dismissed this as “more guilt by association” of the sort that led The Post to question Almontaser about the T-shirts. Almontaser had no connection to AWAAM “at the time she was asked about the T-shirts,” he said. He also noted that Youth Bridges, a group managed by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, had offered AWAAM a $500 mini-grant for its summer program two years earlier. (AWAAM turned down the grant.)
“One can just as fairly say that JCRC had the same ‘ties’ to the T-shirts as Debbie did,” said Levine.
CAIR-New York, which has honored Almontaser with a community service award, “is well known and recognized,” Levine said. Its general counsel, he noted, sits on the city’s Human Rights Commission as a mayoral appointee.
In her suit, Almontaser, who publicly resigned her position in the face of the firestorm of criticism she faced, alleged it was Mayor Michael Bloomberg who forced her to quit her job.
Deputy Mayor for Education Dennis Walcott “made clear that the mayor wanted her resignation,” the suit alleged, after several days of media furor over her failure to immediately condemn the T-shirts. “He added that the mayor wanted her resignation by 8 a.m. the next morning so that he could announce it on his radio show that morning,” the suit claimed.
The next morning, Bloomberg welcomed Almontaser’s resignation. “She got a question,” he explained. “She’s not all that media savvy, maybe, and she tried to explain a word rather than condemn.”
Almontaser claimed this alleged forced resignation violated her rights to free speech and due process. Her successor as interim principal, Danielle Salzberg, who does not speak Arabic, is reportedly due to leave her post next week. Besides seeking unspecified financial damages, Almontaser demanded the court stop the Department of Education from hiring someone else as the school’s permanent principal before giving her “a full and fair opportunity” to be considered for the job.
“The decision was not mine to stay or leave,” Almontaser told The Jewish Week, adding, “I never defended the T-shirts. I defined the word because I was asked what the origin of the word in Arabic was. I explained to the reporter it has different meanings for different people, especially in the Middle East, where thousands have been killed.”
Almontaser said that during their phone interview, Post reporter Chuck Bennett asked if it was “appropriate” for her to be “associated” with a group that put out such shirt. She said she explained that AWAAM was just using office space rented by a Yemeni American organization on whose board she sat to run a summer youth program. “I said this organization and its t-shirt have nothing to do with me or the school.”
Bennett then asked her what the word “intifada” meant.
“I gave him the root of the word,” she said, and told him, “You must understand this word has developed a negative connotation based on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in which thousands of people have been killed.”
Almontaser said Bennett dropped the part of the quote about the thousands killed.
According to Almontaser’s legal complaint, when Bennett suggested AWAAM was a “possible terrorist training group, she expressed the belief that the teenage girls of AWAAM did not mean to promote a Gaza-style uprising in New York City.”
Under a story headlined, “City Principal Is ‘Revolting,’” Bennett wrote that Almontaser “downplayed the significance of the T-shirts.” A photo of the shirts carried the caption: “The pro-violence t-shirt is being defended by Principal Debbie Almontaser.”
The word [intifada] basically means ‘shaking off,’” the story quoted her saying. “That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic. I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don’t believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society … and shaking off oppression.
A spokesperson for the Post said the paper stood by its story.
After his Monday court hearing, Levine, said that DOE claimed it had considered her application but had narrowed a field of 25 applicants down to three to five finalists that did not include Almontaser — a key designer of the new school’s program almost from its conception. The department had “agreed not to do anything until Dec. 3,” said Levine. Meanwhile, Judge Sidney Stein set the next hearing for Nov. 30, giving Levine until then to review DOE hiring records “to see if there is a basis for their claim that they did, in fact, consider her application on its merits.”
That is the key question if Almontaser’s case proceeds, said Levine. This assumes, of course, that Levine can convince the court that Almontaser did not, in fact, resign of her own volition.
“She’d have to show causality,” said David Raff, a civil rights attorney and former chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Civil Rights. “That her talking [to the press] was the actual true cause for DOE’s action.”
That is complicated by the fact that she officially resigned, he said. “If she felt a lot of pressure on her because of the press, and she elected to [resign], she will have a tough road to show she was basically ordered to do it,” he said.
For its part, the Education Department is also adamant that it never pressured Almontaser into doing The Post interview. “Debbie wanted to speak to this reporter,” said DOE spokesman David Cantor. “She didn’t want to be seen as inaccessible or as someone afraid and unwilling to speak to the media. I offered her the option, as I do any principal, of handling the reporter for her. We never force any principal to speak with a reporter.”
Bennett, had submitted his questions in advance, and one about the T-shirts was on the list. This is contrary to an account last August in The Jewish Week that was based on a Jewish communal source who said he had spoken with Almontaser. She herself was not then taking questions from news media.
“We knew about the T-shirts,” Cantor explained. Her connection with them was remote. It in no way implicated her in anything that anyone fair-minded could take issue with. I was hopeful that would be the way she would represent the situation.”
Almontaser’s demand to now be considered equitably for the position of permanent principal appears to have strong support from important quarters.
Ernest Logan, president of the city’s union for principals, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, condemned Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s “unwillingness to allow her to be considered” as “the only possible explanation” for her failure to be included among the finalists, given her background with Khalil Gibran.
In a surprising statement to The Jewish Week, Randi Weingarten, head of the powerful United Federation of Teachers, also said Almontaser should receive “seriously consideration” for the post.
Weingarten condemned Almontaser for her T-shirt remarks last August in a letter to The New York Post, when she suggested, “Maybe ultimately she should not be a principal.” Almontaser described that as “the final nail in the coffin.”