The gesture had been organized as a way to honor National Foreign Language Week: Recite the Pledge of Allegiance in multiple languages.
But as soon as the Arabic words began echoing in the classrooms at Pine Bush High School in Pine Bush, N.Y., on Wednesday, students responded. They were angry. They catcalled, the Times Record-Herald reported. All day, people talked about it until the principal explained the context and apologized if people were offended, the paper reported.
School superintendent Joan Carbone told the Record-Herald that the reading “divided the school in half” and was “something that was supposed to be good but turned out not to be.” She fielded complaints from Jewish parents and residents who had family members killed in Afghanistan, she told the paper.
The school’s foreign languages department had organized the reading and other activities “in an effort to celebrate the many races, cultures and religions that make up this great country and our school district,” according to a Pine Bush Central School District statement. “The intention was to promote the fact that those who speak a language other than English still pledge to salute this great country. We sincerely apologize to any students, staff or community members who found this activity disrespectful.”
Despite the apologies, the angry comments have continued, both online and in person, senior class president Andrew Zink told The Washington Post. Some students called the student who read the pledge in Arabic “a terrorist” and said that student “should go to the Middle East,” Zink said. “People started saying that English is America’s only language, and soon it just started getting really out of hand.”
On Thursday morning, a number of cars in the school parking lot had American flags flying from their roofs, the Herald-Record reported. Scrawled on several cars: “We live in America. Speak English.”
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Zink, who normally reads the announcements, was asked to allow the Arabic reading shortly before he began his routine on Wednesday morning. “I was expecting it, and that’s exactly why I said yes,” he said of the backlash. “I knew that no one in this town would like that, and because of that, I wanted to show the cultural divide in our school.”
He referred to the 2012 civil rights lawsuit filed against the district by families who claimed their children were the victims of antisemitic harassment. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ordered an investigation into the allegations of persistent abuse. The school district tried to get the suit dismissed, but a federal judge ruled in November 2014 that the suit would go forward.
Wednesday’s reading at Pine Bush High was supposed to be followed this week by pledges in Japanese, Italian, French and Spanish, Zink said. But the school district said in its statement that the pledge “will only be recited in English as recommended by the Commissioner of Education.”
Carbone told the Record-Herald that state education regulations specify reading the pledge in English. A 1997 memo sent by the department of education to superintendents across the state describes how the pledge should be recited. It reads:
The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, ” I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform men should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute.
Fervor hasn’t quieted. Members of the local American Legion chapter expect to address the controversy at a Thursday night meeting. “I have a lot of unhappy members,” chapter commander Andrew Brew told the Herald-Record. “For somebody to use a language other than English to recite the pledge, that’s wrong. We’re not overseas. It’s just wrong.”
Arabic pledges of allegiance have ignited controversy elsewhere. In 2013, a Colorado school’s multicultural club translated the pledge into numerous languages, including French and Spanish. But it was the Arabic reading that prompted angry calls and e-mails to the principal, who stood by his decision to allow it.
“I guess I’m getting worn down a little bit by how intense their sense of hate has been represented in some of the things they’ve written and said,” Rocky Mountain High School principal Tom Lopez said at the time.
Zink, who says he’s been asked not to recite morning announcements going forward, said about half of the students in the school supported the reading, but that opposing voices are louder. A rally in the cafeteria for supporters of the pledge will take place Thursday afternoon, he said.
“This problem is not just a problem in Pine Bush. This is a cultural divide that exists within America,” he said. “I think it’s just sad that people think what defines you as an American is the language you speak.”