Standing firm

A police officer stands at the Department of Education’s Manhattan headquarters, where protesters rallied on Monday to demand the reinstatement of Khalil Gibran Academy principal Debbie Almontaser, who resigned under fire earlier this month.
Matthew Weinstein

A diverse group that included Arab-American activists and Jewish educators rallied on the steps of the Department of Education on Monday to demand the reinstatement of Debbie Almontaser to the helm of the city’s first Arabic language and culture academy.

The rally came less than two weeks after Almontaser resigned amid an uproar over her defense of a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Intifada NYC,” and a Jewish, non-Arabic-speaking educator was appointed in her place to run the school, which is slated to begin its first school year next month in a Dean Street middle- and high-school building.

Almontaser, the founder of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, had been quoted in the New York Post earlier this month defending the T-shirt on the grounds that the word “intifada” literally translates as “shaking off.”

“Debbie should lead this school because she founded it, and it’s her vision,” said Mona Eldahry, founding director of Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), the organization that sells the “Intifada NYC” T-shirts and shares an office with another organization associated with Almontaser. Eldahry was one of the organizers of the rally, which drew close to 200 people.

“Debbie attempted to educate the public about the word ‘intifada’ [by using] a definition you’ll find in any dictionary.”

Almontaser later condemned the use of “intifada” on the T-shirts, but the damage was done. Her initial comments sparked a furor that culminated in a public scolding from teacher’s union head Randi Weingarten and Almontaser’s resignation on Aug. 10.

The Department of Education then filled Almontaser’s post with Danielle Salzberg, a Jewish educator who speaks no Arabic and has no apparent knowledge of Arab culture. Former mayor Ed Koch called the move “spitting in their eye.”

Aliya Latif, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-NY, which sponsored Monday’s rally, agreed with Koch’s pithy assessment. “A dual-language program requires a principal who is well versed in the Arabic language and culture,” Latif told The Brooklyn Paper.

Dozens of people rallied this week in front of the Department of Education's Manhattan headquarters to demand the reinstatement of Khalil Gibran Academy principal Debbie Almontaser.
Matthew Weinstein

At Monday’s rally, dozens of organizations supported Almontaser, including the Brooklyn-based Make the Road by Walking.

“There was a lot of hysteria going around,” said Irene Tung, a spokeswoman for the organization. “No one was willing to stand up and support the school. No one was courageous enough.”

While Almontaser’s supporters rallied, one of her most-prominent tormentors continued to call for the dissolution of the Gibran Academy.

In a letter to the Department of Education, Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D–Borough Park) objected to the notion of a school set up to teach one language and culture.

“How about a school dedicated to Hebrew language, Hebrew culture, and the history of anti-Semitism throughout the ages?” Hikind asked. “After that, we can go on to a school to explore the rich Irish heritage, and their history of potato famines and the troubles with the British.”

Hikind said he also objected to an apparent call from “sponsors and organizational endorsers of the school [to] boycott of Israel and [demand] divestment.”

“Is this what we want taught in our public schools?” he asked. “Instead of enriching our students’ grasp of diverse cultures, will this school become a morass of polarization and justification of terror tactics?”

A Department of Education spokeswoman refused to comment on the rally or on Hikind’s letter, saying only that the city is busy “preparing Khalil Gibran International Academy for the first day of school” in September.

A protester questions the Mayor’s reasoning for giving in to those who called for controversial principal Debbie Almontaser to be canned.
Matthew Weinstein

More from Around New York