In New York, a Word Starts a Fire

Rabbig Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition calls for elected officials to support the Khalil Gibran International Academy.
Rabbig Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition calls for elected officials to support the Khalil Gibran International Academy. (By Tina Fineberg -- Associated Press)
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007

NEW YORK -- The goals were clear when Sheneen Jackson enrolled her son in one of the first public schools in the nation to focus on Arabic language and culture. First, her 11-year-old would master Arabic. Later, doors would open for him in government and diplomacy -- maybe a job at the United Nations, international travel, the prospect of contributing to Middle East peace.

Instead, Jackson discovered that the distrust and tension that infuse many Middle East issues had tainted the Brooklyn middle school.

"It's unfortunate, but I know a lot of people in New York are sensitive," Jackson, 33, a Verizon technician, said of the controversy over the school. "That's the whole premise of the school."

Officials had no sooner announced in February the formation of the Khalil Gibran International Academy than conservative columnists and media outlets attacked, suggesting the principal -- an observant Muslim Arab woman -- might push an agenda of Islamist extremism.

Principal Debbie Almontaser said her mission was to foster tolerance and understanding. But she resigned Aug. 10 after the New York Post quoted her talking about definitions of the word "intifada."

Almontaser's critics say she failed to immediately condemn the slogan "Intifada NYC" on a T-shirt displayed by a group with no connection to the school. She later condemned it.

"You don't want to have a school that confirms people's worst fears," said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers.

Supporters of Almontaser, who wears a hijab, the traditional head covering, say she has been hounded and misinterpreted.

"Sadly and unfortunately, Debbie was singled out and attacked because she's a religious Muslim," said Rabbi Andy Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim, who is part of an informal clergy advisory group for the school. "Everything in her career, from what we can see, has demonstrated she's a peaceful person who has been the center of dialogue."

At core in the debate is a linguistic disconnect. The word "intifada" crystallized in its current Arabic meaning during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early '90s. It is seen by many Arabs as a valid term for popular resistance to oppression, while for many English speakers it has come to conjure images of violent attacks on civilians.

City officials commended Almontaser's educational record while suggesting that her comments made her an inappropriate principal. "She's very smart," said Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. "She's certainly not a terrorist." But it was "nice of her" to step down, he said.

The school, named for a Lebanese Christian poet and artist who lived in New York, will eventually teach sixth through 12th grades and offer classes such as math and science in both Arabic and English. It will join more than 60 existing dual-language city schools that teach in languages including Russian, Spanish and Chinese.

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