The city has appointed a Jewish educator to salvage its first Arabic language and culture academy following the resignation school founder, Debbie Almontaser, who came under fire after defending “Intifada NYC” T-shirts created by an organization with which she was affiliated.
On Tuesday, the city announced the appointment of Danielle Salzberg as interim principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, which will begin classes in just over two weeks.
Salzberg speaks no Arabic and has no apparent expertise in Arabic culture.
Even commentators who defended the school were taken aback by the city’s decision to appoint Salzberg to the delicate post.
“To put a principal totally un-immersed in the culture seems like spitting in their eye,” former Mayor Ed Koch told the New York Times.
Salzberg, who worked on the planning of the school, though behind the scenes, was rushed into the job following the resignation of Almontaser, a fluent Arabic speaker, amid the uproar about the “Intifada NYC” shirts.
The T-shirt was made by a group called Arab Women Active in Art and Media, which shares office space with another organization of which Almontaser is a board member.
Almontaser initially defended the shirt, saying that “intifada” literally means “shaking off.”
“I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas,” she told the Post. “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.”
Insiders say the remark — in addition to other missteps (see our “Timeline of a Debacle,” below) — led to her demise.
Her translation, while technically accurate, “ignored the reality that the word ‘intifada’ also has come to mean a violent uprising in Palestinian territories against Israel,” said Joel Levy, New York Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, which supports the school.
The same day her remarks were printed, Almontaser issued a much stronger condemnation of the T-shirt, but the damage was done. Randi Weingarten, the head of the powerful teacher’s union, criticized Almontaser’s handling of the situation on Aug. 9, and the next day, Almontaser resigned in a very angry letter to the Department of Education that railed against the “intolerant and hateful tone” of her critics.
“I have grown increasingly concerned that these few outsiders will disrupt the community of learning when the Academy opens,” she wrote in the letter leaked to the New York Sun, ironically the paper that arguably did the most to bring down the school.
The appointment of Salzberg did not end the controversy. Like Almontaser, Salzberg is a veteran of the city’s educational bureaucracy. But unlike Almontaser, she is a practicing Jew who belongs to an Upper West Side synagogue and knows no Arabic.
“Is [Salzberg] ideal, no,” said Levy, of the Anti-Defamation League. “Can she be the principal of the school? Yes.”
Abdur-Rahman Farrakhan, the imam at Masjid Al-Jamaiyah in Brownsville and a friend of Almontaser’s, was less diplomatic.
“I would hope they would find someone with the requisite experience and knowledge to give people the best light on our culture,” he said.
Mayor Bloomberg brushed off such criticism.
“Well, [Salzberg] has a lot of experience in starting schools and in working within the system and handling the most difficult tasks that we come up with in the schools,” Hizzoner said at a recent press conference.
“And, you know, you don’t have to speak Arabic in order to run a school. You have to make sure that you have the resources, have the right teachers, they get the right training.
At least one prominent supporter of the school agreed.
“I think it’s a good move,” said the Rev. Daniel Meeter of Park Slope’s Old First Reformed Church. “It demonstrates the non-sectarian character of this school.”
Almontaser could not be reached for comment, and her voicemail was full. She has not spoken about her resignation publicly.
Salzberg did not respond to two requests for comment.
From the time its creation was made public, the Khalil Gibran Academy was a lightening rod for criticism of the Department of Education.
Drawing parallels to the city’s botched effort to change school bus routes mid-winter, parents and administrators complained bitterly about the department’s foisting of a new school onto existing buildings just as the summer got underway.
The department sparked outrage not once, but twice, by trying to squeeze the middle-school-level Academy into two Brooklyn schools without consulting the principals or Parent-Teacher Associations first.
The city finally won the support of parents at the second school, on Dean Street, that will soon share space with the Academy, by promising much needed improvements to the school building.
Khalil Gibran Academy is named for the acclaimed Lebanese-American Christian writer.
Timeline of a debacle
It’s hard to imagine a less auspicious beginning for the city’s fledgling Arabic language and culture academy than to have its founding principal resign just weeks before the beginning of the school year — and then get replaced by a Jewish woman who doesn’t speak Arabic. Here’s how the Khalil Gibran International Academy went so terribly awry.
February 12, 2007
The Department of Education announces plans for the Khalil Gibran International Academy, to be located somewhere in Brooklyn. Speculation ensues as to where the school will be sited.
March 12, 2007
Two parents send Schools Chancellor Joel Klein a letter complaining that the academy would “invade” PS 282 in Park Slope with a program that “is an abdication of the basic principle behind public education [by setting] up separate schools to teach uncritically one history and one culture.”
March 16, 2007
Parents protest at PS 282, while Gibran principal Debbie Almontaser tours the building with her PS 282 counterpart and city officials. Almontaser does not speak publicly, further alienating the school from the Park Slope community.
April 24 and 30, 2007
New York Sun columnists Daniel Pipes and Alicia Colon begin what would become months of broadsides against the notion of an Arabic language and culture academy. “How delighted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda must have been to hear the news,” Colon wrote.
May 4, 2007
The city backs off the PS 282 plan, but announces four days later that the academy would be housed within a middle school/ high school on Dean Street in Boerum Hill.
May 14, 2007
The two Boerum Hill PTAs hold an emergency meeting and complain of a lack of space and about the city’s poor consultation. The city sends a damage-control team that includes Almontaser; Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott; and Garth Harries, the head of the city’s “New Schools” division.
May 19, 2007
Almontaser tells The Brooklyn Paper that she sympathizes with parents, but said she had no role in deciding the school’s location.
Aug. 6, 2007
A New York Post story links Almontaser to an organization that sells “Intifada NYC” T-shirts. Almontaser defends the shirts, saying that “intifada” literally means “shaking off.” The comment sparks criticism. The next day, Almontaser called the T-shirts “completely inappropriate.”
Aug. 9, 2007
Randi Weingarten, head of the city’s powerful teacher’s union, publicly criticizes Almontaser’s handling of the situation.
Aug. 10, 2007
Almontaser submits her resignation letter, citing her critics’ “intolerant and hateful tone.”
Aug. 14, 2007
The city selects a Jewish educator as interim principal of the Arabic language and culture Khalil Gibran International Academy. Salzberg speaks no Arabic and has no apparent expertise in Arab culture.