A key leader of the group opposing a new, Arab-focused public school in Brooklyn is a virulent opponent of a democratic Jewish state who denounces “Zionist Israel” and calls on it to “cast off the yoke of liberal democracy.”
Stop the Madrassa leader David Yerushalmi also condemns democracy in the United States and, in comments that evoke classical anti-Semitic stereotypes, says he finds truth in the view that Jews “destroy their host nations like a fatal parasite.” Stop the Madrassa and other critics seeking to derail the opening of the Khalil Gibran school, set for next month, have charged that the school’s advisory board includes radical Islamists.
Now, Yerushalmi’s comments have raised concerns about Stop the Madrassa’s own leadership by some of its own advisory members. Yerushalmi, a national advisory board member, counsel and de facto treasurer for Stop the Madrassa, wrote regarding conservative criticism of Israel, Zionism and Jews: “Much of what drives it is true and accurate.” Conservatives’ primary “critique,” he said, “is that the Jews of the modern age are the most radical, aggressive and effective of the liberal Elite.”
“One must admit readily that the radical liberal Jew is a fact of the West and a destructive one,” he wrote. “Indeed, Jews in the main have turned their backs on the belief in G-d and His commandments as a book of laws for a particular and chosen people.”
In Israel, he said, other than the ultra-Orthodox, “Most Israelis are raging Leftists, and this includes the so-called nationalists who found a home in the ‘right-wing’ Likud political bloc or one of the other smaller and more marginal right wing parties.”
In a message to a pro-Israel rally last June he asked: “What interest does America have in a strong Israel? If your answer is democracy in a liberal or western sense, know you have sided with the Palestinians of Hamas.”
An attorney based in California and Arizona, Yerushalmi has expressed his views in columns on the Conservative Voice, an Internet site offering right-wing commentary and perspectives, and the Web site of the Society of Americans for National Existence, an organization he founded and leads. His comments about Israeli democracy came at a “Stand with Israel” rally in June.
Yerushalmi’s comments surfaced as supporters and opponents of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a middle school scheduled to open Sept. 4, escalated their rhetoric.
The new middle school is to offer a college prep program in a small school setting with an emphasis on Arabic language and Arab culture and history. Its stated goal is to enroll 60 students — ideally, half with Arabic language skills — for a program in which two Arabic teachers will teach math and social studies. Science and other courses will be in English. Arabic language electives will also be available. The school’s funders include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But as of last week, the school had enrolled only 50 students, and only a few spoke Arabic, according to enrollment coordinator Naamah Paley.
When it opens, Khalil Gibran will join some 40 other small public schools with comparable emphases on Chinese, Greek, Russian and Spanish language and culture. But critics, such as Stop the Madrassa, warn that creating a separate school focused on Arab language and culture will “indoctrinate” students with radical Islam. Supporters of the school, staging a rally Monday night in front of the New York City Department of Education, labeled such statements “racist” and called the school’s opponents part of a well-organized, right-wing effort aimed at multiculturalism.
The rally took place two weeks after the school’s Yemeni-born founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, resigned amid a swirl of controversy and after city officials chose an Orthodox-raised Jewish woman, Danielle Sulzberg, as her replacement. Almontaser, who has worked with many Jewish groups on interfaith projects, was forced to resign after giving an interview to the New York Post in which she failed to denounce T-shirts bearing the message, “Intifada-NYC.” Instead, she explained one of the word’s definitions — “shaking off,” as in shaking off a rug — and said the shirt represented an opportunity for girls “to express that they are part of New York City society … and shaking off oppression.”
The interview and resignation were the fatal capstone of a months-long campaign against Almontaser by Stop the Madrassa and its allies, who charged that she was a radical Islamist. The ADL and other mainstream Jewish groups and individuals defended her as a genuine moderate, and — her interview excepted — many have continued to do so.
The school’s advisory board members have also come under sustained attack for alleged radical Islamist ties. Asked if, in light of Yerushalmi’s background, Stop the Madrassa might be harboring extremists among its own leadership, Daniel Pipes, another member of its national advisory board, said “These are troubling statements and raise questions about my serving on the same board as Mr. Yerushalmi. I shall be looking into the matter.”
But group spokesperson Pamela Hall rejected such concerns, calling it “apples and oranges . . .a way of diverting the main issues.”
“We’re not trying to run a public school,” Hall continued. “We’re the citizens; we’re the people; we’re the taxpayers who pay for the schools and care about how our children are educated.”
Hall said Tuesday she was unfamiliar with what Yerushalmi had written, but she defended passages of one essay, concerning hatred of Jews, read to her over the phone. “If he’s speaking of the radical liberal Jews who were at the rally Monday, then these people deserve to be criticized. These people are anti-America. These people are extreme, outrageous leftists. They work so hard to destroy this country … and, sadly, many of them are Jews.”
Jeff Wiesenfeld, a former aide to ex-Gov. Pataki, who also serves on the group’s advisory board, said he, too, was unfamiliar with the Yerushalmi’s views. “I don’t Google everyone I speak with, and I’d say that no one in the group was aware of this.”
Yerushalmi’s views on Israeli democracy were “not helpful to the larger picture,” Wiesenfeld said. “One key reason so many Americans support Israel is because Israel is a democracy, he said, adding, “I vehemently condemn the view that Israel should be anything other than a democracy.”
But Wiesenfeld also drew a distinction between Yerushalmi’s views and the outlook of some of the school’s supporters. Yerushalmi, he said, had expressed “a Jewish supremacist type of thought” — one he rejects — “but nowhere in those quotes did I hear him advocating violence or harm to anyone,” as words like intifada and jihad do.
Contacted by phone Tuesday in his Chandler, Ariz., office, Yerushalmi said he would not be able “to flesh out” his views “in a simple conversation over the phone.” But he said that “everybody recognizes” that a liberal democracy in the Jewish state is a “problem” for the country. “If you truly embrace Arab citizenship and equality, then what do you do when the Arabs outnumber the Jews?” he asked. He argued that those who care about “pure democracy” wouldn’t care about that possibility.
Earlier in the week, Stop the Madrassa condemned the views of a Khalil Gibran advisory board member, Imam Talib Abdul-Rashid of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem. The group criticized the mosque’s sword and crescent logo on its Web site — a traditional emblem of Islam — and its accompanying slogan, drawn, the group said, from the militant Muslim Brotherhood: “Allah is our goal, the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah is our leader, the Qu’ran is our constitution, Jihad is our way, and death in the way of Allah is our promised end.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Abdur-Rashid acknowledged that jihad is a “trigger word,” but he said it was “much misunderstood and much misused.” The word, he said, has three definitions, two of which are nonviolent, and that the mosque’s use of the word is meant “in a very comprehensive sense.”
The word’s three definitions, the imam said, all refer to struggle, such as the struggle against one’s own evil desires, speaking truth in the face of tyranny and any arduous fight, violent or nonviolent, in a righteous cause.
“Death in the way of Allah,” another part of the slogan, is “not referring to killing anyone,” the imam said — “just to when our time comes.”
Wiesenfeld, of Stop the Madrassa, said, “Let those who think jihad and intifada are nice terms — let them take those terms and shove it. Stop parsing the language.”
Doug Chandler is a Jewish Week contributor; Larry Cohler-Esses in editor at large.