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Election Notebook: The Politics Of School Closings

Election Notebook: The Politics Of School Closings

Now that alternate-side parking has been suspended on almost every conceivable festival, mass or fast day, there is a new front in the battle for religious political muscle in New York: School closings.

Muslim community groups, backed nearly unanimously by the City Council, are pressing for days off in honor of two of their holidays, which would be in addition to closures on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Christmas and Easter.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposes the idea. And in a sign that proponents view the measure as about politics as much as — or perhaps more than — religious accommodation, some are hinting at bias and promising to make this an election-year issue.

“I do hope that there is not a political strategy to gain votes from some sectors of the Jewish population that might applaud any push back against the diverse Muslim community,” said Adem Carroll, executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network, an advocacy umbrella group, in a statement to The Jewish Week.

“That would be ugly and divisive and I trust the mayor would not play the two communities off each other in that manner.”

Opposing the closings for Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fatr is consistent with the mayor’s re-election campaign, in which he promises via ubiquitous TV spots to make tough choices and stand up to special interests. (In 2005, he opposed suspending the street parking rules on Purim, although the Council overturned his veto).

“One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday there won’t be any school,” the mayor said last week. “Educating our kids requires time in the classroom and that’s the most important thing to us.”

Citiing the case of a Jewish high school student who couldn’t attend graduation on Shabbat, but instead had a private ceremony with the schools chancellor, Bloomberg said accommodations can often be made that do not affect other students.

But Carroll said Bloomberg’s opposition to the closings was consistent with a lack of sensitivity to the city’s growing Muslim community. He said the mayor did not express sympathy for Palestinian civilians in Gaza who were affected by an Israeli counterterrorism offensive last winter, nor did he back the principal of an Arab-language charter school, the Khalil Gibran Academy, who resigned under fire after controversial comments about the term intifada.

“Though he has done much, his record on social justice issues is mixed and he has offered massive support to a party whose extreme right wing has been attacking Muslims and destabilizing our community for the last eight years,” said Carroll, referring to Bloomberg’s Republican donations, although he recently became an independent.

But in one incident early in his tenure, perhaps overlooked by Muslim critics, Bloomberg ignored pressure from some Jewish activists to fire a Muslim appointee to the Human Rights Commission.

Despite complaints that Omar Mohammadi had ties to groups seen as supporting terrorism, Bloomberg allowed Mohammadi to complete his term. The mayor also ignored calls to fire an imam who is a city prison chaplain over controversial comments about President Bush and instead disciplined the chaplain.

After extending term limits with the City Council, the billionaire mayor is already spending millions on a third campaign in which he is highly favored against Democrat William C. Thompson, the city comptroller. (A Marist College poll released Wednesday shows Bloomberg slightly losing ground, falling from a 51-35 lead in May to 48-35.)

A key proponent of the closings, Imam Talib Abdur-Rashid of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, cited the city’s Muslim community as 600,000 strong and promised a political price for the mayor in opposing the closures.

But Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College, said a backlash was unlikely.
“The Muslim vote will be too small in the citywide election to be a factor,” said Muzzio.

Since the number of school days is mandated by the state, any days off would mean adding new days at the end of the year.

The United Federation of Teachers supports the closings and is willing to accept the added days, said the union’s spokesman, Ron Davis.

“This would address the concerns of what appears to be a growing population within the city as well as among students and our teaching force,” said Davis.

Public recognition of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr has long been a priority of organizations such as the Council on American Islamic Relations, which says there are 1 million Muslims in New York City.

Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice, commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Muslims believe that son was Ishmael, while Jews believe it was his brother, Isaac. Eid al Fatr marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting.

Public schools began closing for the Jewish High Holidays in the 1950s, when the percentage of Jewish teachers and substitutes citywide was so high, some schools had to combine classes or hold assemblies to compensate for their absence.

Carroll estimates that there are 120,000 Muslim students and teachers in the city’s schools today. “I understand the logical arguments on both sides but the mayor needs to recognize the social and political cost of saying no,” he said in an e-mail statement. “This city can certainly afford to find a way to say yes! It is really the far sighted thing to do.”

Marc Stern, the American Jewish Congress’ specialist on religious and legal issues, says its unclear that having school open on Eid al Adha and Eid al-Fitr presents enough hardship to merit the closings.

“There is a delicate balance between protecting, in a practical way, the interests of students and teachers to observe religious practices and the very real pressure to have continuous days of school and not have everybody denied access because a relative handful of people can’t be involved,” says Stern.

“What happens is that these holidays become symbolic, a sign of political potency.”

But Stern added that the potential impact on kids who stand to miss classwork or exams should not be overlooked.

“There are always a couple of teachers who will insist on lecturing and giving quizzes on those days,” he said. “And when you are dealing with a maximum number of [allowed] absences, religious students don’t dare get sick because they may miss too much. Parents have a very legitimate concern that if school is in session on [holidays], how are our kids going to make up the work?”

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