By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
Published: August 29, 2007Last Feb. 12, you may recall, New York education officials announced plans to open a minischool in September that would teach half its classes in Arabic and include study of Arab culture. The principal was to be a veteran teacher who was also a Muslim immigrant from Yemen, Debbie Almontaser.
The critical response began pouring in the very next day.
“I hope it burns to the ground just like the towers did with all the students inside including school officials as well,” wrote an unidentified blogger on the Web site Modern Tribalist, a hub of anti-immigrant sentiment. A contributor identified as Dave responded, “Now Muslims will be able to learn how to become terrorists without leaving New York City.”
Not to be outdone, the conservative Web site Political Dishonesty carried this commentary on Feb. 14:
“Just think, instead of jocks, cheerleaders and nerds, there’s going to be the Taliban hanging out on the history hall, Al Qaeda hanging out by the gym, and Palestinians hanging out in the science labs. Hamas and Hezbollah studies will be the prerequisite classes for an Iranian physics. Maybe in gym they’ll learn how to wire their bomb vests and they’ll convert the football field to a terrorist training camp.”
Thus commenced the smear campaign against the Khalil Gibran International Academy and, specifically, Debbie Almontaser. For the next six months, from blogs to talk shows to cable networks to the right-wing press, the hysteria and hatred never ceased. Regrettably, it worked.
Ms. Almontaser resigned as principal earlier this month. Nominally, she quit to quell the controversy about her remarks to The New York Post insufficiently denouncing the term “intifada” on a T-shirt made by a local Arab-American organization. That episode, however, merely provided the pretext for her ouster, for the triumph of a concerted exercise in character assassination.
After initially consenting to an interview for this column, Ms. Almontaser backed out, saying she did not want to “do anything that would jeopardize the school,” which is still set to open next month in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. One of her longtime colleagues, however, spoke candidly about her emotions.
“She feels that she’s been violated, personally and professionally,” said Louis Cristillo, a research professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who has studied the experiences of Muslim children in the New York public schools. “To be painted as somebody who’s un-American, questioning her patriotism, is extremely hurtful for her. She’s really shocked at how devastatingly effective the defamation was.”
For anyone who bothered to look for it, Ms. Almontaser left a clear, public record of interfaith activism and outreach across the boundaries of race, ethnicity and religion. Her efforts, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks, earned her honors, grants and fellowships. She has collaborated so often with Jewish organizations that an Arab-American newspaper, Aramica, castigated her earlier this summer for being too close to a “Zionist organization,” meaning the Anti-Defamation League.
Ms. Almontaser has twice been profiled on Voice of America as an accomplished Muslim American. Her son, Yousif, spent several months on rescue efforts at ground zero as a member of the Army National Guard. Four of her nephews and cousins have served in the United States military in Iraq.
None of these details were exactly hidden under a rock. But her critics ignored them. In syndicated columns by Daniel Pipes, in articles and editorials in The New York Post and The New York Sun, on such Web sites as PipeLineNews and Militant Islam Monitor, both concerned with radical Islam, the Gibran school was repeatedly characterized as a “madrassa,” an Arabic term plainly meant to evoke images of indoctrination into terrorism and holy war.
Bella Rabinowitz, writing on March 9 in PipeLineNews, called Gibran “an Islamist public school whose curriculum shares the same ideology as the Sept. 11 terrorists.” Alicia Colon wrote in The Sun on May 1, “How delighted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda must have been to hear the news” that New York “is bowing down in homage to accommodate and perhaps groom future radicals.”
Just as the school was caricatured, so was Ms. Almontaser. Although she has used the first name Debbie since childhood, her critics relentlessly identified her by her legal name Dhabah, the better to render her alien. Some articles would add the phrase “a k a Debbie,” treating her chosen name as a sort of criminal alias.
What all the attacks lacked was a single solid example of Ms. Almontaser having espoused Islamic extremism, much less jihad, during her 15 years as an educator. They have described her as a “9/11 denier” on the basis of one statement that “I don’t recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims.”
Yet, as Larry Cohler-Esses noted in an incisive article in New York Jewish Week, these foes conveniently overlooked what Ms. Almontaser went on to say in the same interview: “Those people who did it have stolen my identity as an Arab and stolen my religion.”
What Ms. Almontaser has done — as a private citizen, not in her classroom — is assail the Bush administration for its domestic surveillance and for its Middle East policies. She has said that desperation and oppression contribute to terrorism. You can disagree with her positions and still not believe they should be the basis for destroying her career.
“There’s zero correspondence between the caricature and the actual person,” said Rabbi Andy Bachman of Beth Elohim, a Reform Jewish congregation in Park Slope, who was on the Gibran school’s advisory board. “The words that were used to describe her, the fears that were evoked, are absolutely unrelated to her and her life’s work. Not in any way, shape or form.”
Another rabbi who has worked with Ms. Almontaser on interfaith efforts, Michael Feinberg of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, said: “It’s all about insinuation and innuendo and this formula of Arab equals Muslim equals terrorist. The viciousness and the vileness of this case surpass anything I’ve seen before.”
That vileness also did no favors to the responsible critics of the Gibran school, whether they were parents worried about school overcrowding or scholars like Diane Ravitch and Richard Kahlenberg, who believe that public schools should reinforce a common American culture rather than promote ethnic identity. Their worthy voices got lost in all the bile.
For now at least, Ms. Almontaser remains employed by the Department of Education. What she requires, though, is something harder to obtain than another job. As another victim of a different smear campaign put it once: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.