Op-Ed: Public Education and Global Politics

2007-08-29

Naomi Braine, Jon Moscow, and Lee Schere.
The authors are NYC educators, and Jewish social justice activists.

Two weeks ago, the principal of a new middle school resigned in the
wake of an incident in which a reporter asked her a question about a
t-shirt slogan. The shirt was produced by an organization
unaffiliated with the school, and her response was simply to define
the non-English word used in the slogan.

Of course, the real issues here have nothing to do with t shirts.
Debbie Almontaser, then principal of the Khalil Gibran school for
Arabic language and cultures, was asked about a slogan using the
Arabic word ‘intifada’, and chose to translate and situate the word
culturally, rather than engage in a partisan exchange. Her questioner
worked for the New York Post, a newspaper with a strong editorial
position in support of the Israeli government, and he tried to force
her to take a position on a highly charged political issue. While she
has been accused of political naivety, her choice to try to sidestep
global politics in favor of a larger linguistic and cultural education
seems anything but naïve under the circumstances. The problem lies
not in Ms Almontaser’s answer but in the original question, and the
use of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a form of litmus test in
the United States.

This country has a long history of demanding loyalty oaths,
particularly from those positioned as ethnically suspect at any given
historical moment. The McCarthy era is, no doubt, the most famous of
those but it is hardly unique in our history. The search for
communists caused witch hunts, purges, and political purification
rituals from, at various points in the 20th century, union officials,
Jews, Italians, immigrants generally, homosexuals and public school
teachers. African American public figures have been regularly asked
to deny all connection to outspoken members of the Black community.
Martin Luther King, Jr may be a national icon now, but during his
lifetime he was seen by J. Edgar Hoover as dangerously un-American.
The primary function of these political assaults has always been to
define permissable limits of political discourse and silence dissent

The leading targets of US security policing are now Islamic
‘fundamentalism’ and ‘jihad,’ not communism , and Palestinian
resistance to Israeli occupation plays a central symbolic role. The
phrase ‘Palestinian resistance’ has become, in itself, a potent
political locator, and we use it intentionally. When the principal of
the Khalil Gibran school was asked a question about a t-shirt slogan
that used the word ‘intifada’, she was being asked to publicly
repudiate the struggles of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza
Strip and East Jerusalem. Anyone who considers this statement an
exaggeration should look carefully at how her refusal to take a
position on the Israel-Palestine struggle resulted in her being forced
to resign. Ms Almontaser’s rejection of partisan political ritual
should not be a matter of concern for the NY public; her professional
credentials, experience, and approach to public education are a
legitimate focus, and she demonstrated relevant skills in those areas
by refusing to engage with political provocation.

As Jewish New Yorkers, we have a complex relationship to both loyalty
oaths and the invocation of Israel as a political tool in NYC.
American Jewish communities have considerable experience with
accusations of political disloyalty, and with being subjected to
ethnic prejudice based on religious identity. We find these forms of
bigotry equally abhorrent when directed at Arabs, Muslims, or any
other social groups. We also feel a particular obligation to protest
when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is used as a weapon to
marginalize Arab Americans. Elements of the Jewish and Christian
Zionist movements have deliberately created the strong American
identification with Israel that enables the use of the intifada as a
litmus test of political loyalty in the US. The exercise of prejudice
does not enhance anyone’s safety, and demanding ritual denunciations
of the intifada will do nothing to reduce terrorism in the US.

We are particularly disturbed that Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein,
and teachers union president Randi Weingarten did not resist and
condemn the attacks on Ms. Almontaser. They surrendered to those who
seek to exploit Israeli-Palestinian tensions to create and exacerbate
fear and suspicion in New York City, and to foster Anti-Arab
prejudice. In doing so, they have undermined the Kahlil Gibran
Academy’s mission and added to the barriers of mutual suspicion and
isolation that it hopes to tear down. Their failure to stand up for
Ms. Almontaser will weaken educators who are willing to try new things
and to take risks for New York’s children—the very qualities that the
school system needs. Students need to learn history, culture,
language, and, yes, politics, but they do not need to be drilled in
the recitation of rote responses to complex issues. New York needs
more educators who will teach our children to be thoughtful,
principled, and engaged citizens of a global world.

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