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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)

Almontaser, a Yemeni immigrant with a long record in city schools, is fluent in Arabic and has led interfaith and peace efforts. She seemed the ideal choice for principal, said Taoufiq Ben Amor, who helped interview candidates as a representative of the Arab American group Alwan for the Arts.

"We chose Debbie exactly because she's a very open person," he said.

But parents at the school that was to house the academy campaigned against it, saying there was no room, causing officials to eventually find another location. Then the columnists lit in.

Daniel Pipes, a pro-Israel conservative who created Campus Watch, a Web site dedicated to exposing alleged bias in university Middle East-studies programs, wrote in the New York Sun that the school would cause problems because "learning Arabic in [and] of itself promotes an Islamic outlook."

A group called the Stop the Madrassa Coalition coalesced in Brooklyn to fight the school. Various blogs, Fox News, the New York Post and the New York Sun variously probed Almontaser's background and editorialized against the school.

Almontaser was silent this summer until the school board suggested that she grant an interview to the New York Post, in which the reporter asked about the slogan on the now-infamous T-shirts displayed by members of Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media.

"The word basically means 'shaking off,' " Almontaser was quoted as saying in the Aug. 6 article. "That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic."

"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."

The next day, Almontaser issued a statement through the press office: "The word 'Intifada' is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan."

"By minimizing the word's historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me and the very opposite of my life's work," the statement continued.

But the damage was done. The New York Post called her "Intifada Principal" and published an editorial with the headline "What's Arabic for 'Shut It Down'?" Others, including Weingarten, condemned her statements.

Almontaser did not respond to requests for an interview.

After her resignation, officials named as interim principal Danielle Salzberg, who is experienced in setting up new schools. But some supporters of the academy said they fear she, too, will be a divisive figure because she does not speak Arabic and happens to be an Orthodox Jew.

"It's a slap in our face," Wael Mousfar, president of the Arab Muslim American Federation, said of Salzberg's inability to speak Arabic. "I think she has great abilities, as I read about her -- but it's not the right choice for this school."

The school is set to open in September, but its troubles may not be over. "The next step is to get the academy itself canceled," Pipes wrote in the Aug. 15 New York Sun.

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