It was, exulted Middle East Forum executive director Daniel Pipes, a “clarion call” that had gotten “national attention.”
No, protested Rabbi Michael Paley: “This was a high-tech lynching.”
When Debbie Almontaser resigned under duress last week as principal of a new middle school in Brooklyn emphasizing Arabic language and culture, her departure was, among many things, a victory for a faction of the Jewish community that had waged a months-long battle against the school, its purpose and Almontaser herself.
This week, with the Khalil Gibran International Academy still on track to open next month, they were already planning the next stage of their battle — to persuade the New York City Department of Education to derail the school as Almontaser shuffled off stage, to be replaced by a Jewish woman.
Almontaser’s resignation also deflated others in the Jewish community, including staff affiliated with UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York and the Anti-Defamation League. Professionals from all three groups have worked constructively with Almontaser on various projects. Some were also personally supportive of her declared vision of a dual-language public school that would offer a path for Arab immigrant children to join the pluralistic American mainstream while retaining their own culture.
The ADL has defended Almontaser against months of attacks from school opponents — leading to attacks on her from within her own community for being associated with ADL. Bob Kaplan of JCRC has worked with her in building an inter-ethnic coalition group in Brooklyn.
All did so because of a substantial history with Almontaser on various projects since 9/11 during which they had come to trust her.
Now, in the wake of a disastrous interview in which Almontaser failed to denounce T-shirts bearing the message, “Intifada-NYC,” leading to her resignation, Jewish groups’ views of her appear divided.
Asked if ADL could still work with her on other projects, the group’s national director Abraham Foxman replied, “Absolutely. She gave herself a body blow making her unacceptable as principal of Khalil Gibran, but she continues to be an important person in interfaith relations. She still has her credentials.”
But Kaplan, director of JCRC’s community coalition building initiative, was circumspect. “We’ve had a long relationship, and we’ve been able to work together,” he said. “I imagine we will find opportunities to work together in the future.”
Asked if his constituency might have problems accepting her now, he replied, “That’s a possibility.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg reaffirmed his support for the school this week, even as he welcomed Almontaser’s resignation. “She got a question, she’s not all that media savvy, maybe, and she tried to explain a word rather than condemn,” he said.
Still, some questioned whether the school, which had been hoping for an enrollment of about 60, with about half Arabic speakers, could meets its goal. As of Tuesday, said Naamah Paley, who was in charge of enrollment, there were 50, and few were Arabic speakers. Most are African-American. Paley, a University of Michigan student in Arabic, is the daughter of Rabbi Michael Paley, and interned there this summer, as the school was being set up.
Meanwhile, Foxman criticized as “inappropriate” headlines in the New York Post this week about Almontaser’s successor, Danielle Sulzberg — a Modern Orthodox-raised woman who has been working as liaison between the school and its main funder, the New Visions Foundation. One headline announcing her appointment blared, “Jew-Turn.” Another declared it a “Hebrew ha-ha.”
“This is a question of merit,” said Foxman. “It was inappropriate to go after [Almontaser] because of her religion and faith. And it’s inappropriate now.”
The Jewish support for Almontaser and her school mirrored support from the city and from New Visions, a group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Her advisory board featured three rabbis, three imams and three Christian ministers.
The ‘Intifada’ Interview
Almontaser’s school proposal met fierce resistance from those who doubted her sincerity, deplored some of her associates and suspected her agenda. No one who mattered buckled in their support until her interview with The New York Post.
According to two sources who spoke to her, Almontaser had been declining media requests for interviews all summer at the Department of Education’s advice. But the department urged her to talk to New York Post education reporter Chuck Bennett after he submitted his questions in advance as requested. All of them related directly to the school.
At the very end of the interview, Almontaser told one of these sources, Bennett, without bringing up the T-shirts, asked her almost incidentally what the word “intifada” meant. She consulted an Arabic dictionary and told him:
“The word basically means ‘shaking off.’ That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic.”
Bennett then told her about the T-shirts, adding that they were produced by a group that shares space with another group on whose board she sits. She replied: “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.”
This account could not be independently confirmed. Bennett could not speak on the record. Attempts to reach the education department were unsuccessful.
The story was published Monday, and Almontaser quickly realized the problem she faced. In an e-mail that day, she told community supporters, “I was misrepresented and trapped by the reporter. Those were not my exact words, and the words I did use were taken out of context.”
Through the Education Department’s press office Almontaser also released a statement to the public Monday declaring unequivocally: “The use of the word ‘intifada’ is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan. I regret suggesting otherwise.”
But it was too late. By Thursday, a crucial supporter, Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, denounced her response in a letter to The Post — a critical loss. Almontaser’s resignation letter to Mayor Bloomberg came the next day.
“I have spent the past two decades of my life building bridges among people of all faiths — particularly among Muslims and Jews,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, a small group of highly misguided individuals has launched a relentless attack on me because of my religion.”
The Indictment Against Almontaser
Almontaser had by then withstood months of attacks from prominent Jews on the right in New York and nationally. Pipes, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, joined with others to support a local group called Stop the Madrassa, the term for an Islamic seminary.
According to Education Department plans and curricula, the school is set up as a purely secular project. Two Arabic teachers will teach math and social studies. Science and other courses will be in English. But Stop the Madrassa, led by Brooklyn resident Pam Hall, assailed the school as an Islamist undertaking crafted to promote extremism and sectarianism with taxpayer money.
In pressing their attack Hall’s group received crucial research assistance from Pipes, a Web site called PipeLineNews.org and another called Militant Islamic Monitor. In articles and editorials, The New York Post and New York Sun also pursued the story relentlessly.
Many of the research pieces, authored by Beila Rabinowitz and William A. Mayer, attacked Almontaser for her associates — or her associates’ associates. One piece pointed to the presence of Imam Shamsi Ali on the school’s advisory board. Ali, the writers said, promoted “Jihad by groups like the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Circle of North America.” The article offered no evidence of ICNA’a links to al Qaeda.
In 2006, noted Rabinowitz and Mayer, Ali was a speaker at a Muslim youth camp near Philadelphia where another imam, Mazen Mokhtar of New Brunswick, N.J., also spoke. Mokhtar, the piece claimed, was accused in court papers of helping another Muslim make back-up copies of an Islamist Web site seeking to raise funds for terrorist groups.
Another piece claimed that Almontaser was a “9/11 denier.” The piece quoted her saying, “I don’t recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims.”
The full quote, given to young students asking her questions about Muslim involvement in 9/11, as reported in a Columbia University publication, was: “I don’t recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims. … Those people who did it have stolen my identity as an Arab and have stolen my religion.”
Neither Rabinowitz nor Mayer — also author of an article entitled, “McCarthyism: The Right’s Badge of Honor” — could be located via their Web site.
Pipes, in a piece published in both the New York Post and Jerusalem Post, argued that “learning Arabic in itself promotes an Islamic outlook.” He said he supported such a school in principle because the country needs native-born Arabic speakers. But Pipes warned that in practice, “Arabic language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage.”
He cited a recently published Arabic instruction book, “Focus on Contemporary Arabic: Conversations with Native Speakers,” from Yale University Press for intensely politicized readings [that] would be unimaginable in a book of French or Spanish.”
In an interview, Pipes said he did not know if the book was going to be used in Khalil Gibran.
Incident Will ‘Come Back And Bite Us’
Almontaser, a public school teacher and administrator, was born in Yemen but immigrated here when she was three. Since 9/11, the slight woman in a hijab had emerged as a prominent advocate in the Muslim community for reaching out and working with other faiths. After the attacks her son, an Army Reserve officer, served as a rescue worker at Ground Zero.
Among other things, Almontaser had invited hundreds of Jews and Christians to her own home in the wake of the terrorist attack to help defang fear and anger towards Muslims. She had joined social action groups, such as We Are All Brooklyn, an inter-ethnic initiative supported by JCRC, to combat hate crimes in the dense, mixed neighborhoods of that borough. She had trained with ADL’s anti-bias program, A World of Difference, to become a better facilitator for diversity training and inter-group dynamics in the public schools.
Rabbi Paley, a scholar-in-residence with UJA-Federation, warned that the prominent role played by a faction within the Jewish community in the attack on her would “come back and bite us. This begins to destroy the America that’s been so good to us.” Rabbi Paley, who has met Almontaser during interfaith activities, emphasized that in his remarks on this issue he was speaking only for himself and not his organization.
“The most important thing to know about the Muslim community here is that it replicates the Jewish community from many years ago,” he said. “These are people trying to become Americans as hard as they can, and also trying hard not to lose their identity, just as groups before them did.
“The idea that unless they pass an acid test — that Muslims are terrorists until proven innocent — will mean that none will pass. We are ultimately blocking them from becoming American,” he warned. The result, he said, would be an Arab immigrant community more isolated and less assimilated, “like the Arabs in France.”
The message to the Arab-American community as a result of this debacle was, “You’re a fool to think they’ll accept you,” he said.
But Pipes was unapologetic. The Arab-American community right now — and any Arabic language and culture school — should be subject to “special scrutiny,” he said.
“I believe such a school requires scrutiny beyond that of any other group’s school, he said. “It fits into a larger pattern in which Muslim officials require greater scrutiny, whether they be chaplains [or] law enforcement officers. There is a tendency to sympathize with Islamism that we ignore at our peril. … When law enforcement is looking for a rapist, it looks at men, not men and women. If you’re looking for terrorism you must give special scrutiny to this community.”
Asked how Khalil Gibran and Almontaser had garnered such substantial Jewish support, Pipes replied, “Jews are generally on the liberal side of things. There is a softness on Islamism the more you go on the left.”
Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein were part of this pattern, he said. “They’re modestly to the left. It’s just such an established pattern.
“What I am arguing for — special scrutiny — is often done,” he said. “But it’s done in an unofficial, underhanded way. It’s lying basically. It’s a disservice to Muslims who don’t believe law enforcement when they say you’re not being singled out.
“Let’s make it overt. Let’s say there is a difference. It would be healthy to have a debate about it.”