“First Person: Teachers’ Union Undermines Arabic-Language School” : Indypendent

September 4, 2007

By Steve Quester



Imagine a Latina principal being hounded out of her job because she defended a Latina empowerment group’s Che Guevara T-shirts. Imagine an African-American principal being hounded out of her job because she defended an African-American girls’ empowerment group’s Malcolm X T-shirts. Neither scenario is far-fetched.

But in either of the above scenarios, we’d know it wasn’t about the T-shirts.

However, this basic fact has been obscured in the recent takedown of Debbie Almontaser, the veteran Brooklyn educator, Yemeni-American and hijab-wearing Muslim who was the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), an Arabic-English dual-language public secondary school in Brooklyn that is scheduled to open with the new school year.

I’m at a loss to explain why my union, which continues to support KGIA, piled on when the attacks on the school’s principal were at their shrillest. The union leadership insists that we were acting on our deep commitment to peace and nonviolence, but that’s a strange excuse for joining in a transparently racist and Islamophobic attack.

Before Almontaster was ambushed by the New York Post, KGIA endured months of vitriolic attacks from right-wing websites like Stop the Madrassa, Militant Islam Monitor and Little Green Footballs.

Predictably, the Post, the New York Sun, Fox News and New York State Assembly Member Dov Hikind jumped eagerly into the fray. It’s the same cast of characters, Daniel Pipes among them, who trumped up false charges of anti-Semitism to try to shut down Arab scholars at Columbia University in 2004 and 2005.
According to a report in the Aug. 17 Jewish Week, Almontaser was misled by Post reporters in an interview for an article published on Aug. 6.

The Post submitted questions in advance before the NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE) would agree to let them interview Almontaser. All of the questions were about KGIA. At the end of the interview, the reporter asked offhandedly what “intifada” means.

Those of us…who are outraged at the attacks on Almontaser, are not going to just let this matter drop. We will continue to expose the racist consequences of Weingarten’s statements, so that the next time the right-wing media hit squads go after an educator, she’ll think twice before lending them her voice.

Almontaser, who is after all an educator, looked up the word in the dictionary, and translated it accurately: “shaking off.” The reporter then told Almontaser that the Yemeni-American organization on whose board she sits shares office space with Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM) and that AWAAM had produced a T-shirt with the words “Intifada NYC.” Almontaser, to her credit, refused to throw the girls from AWAAM under a bus, instead referring to their nonviolent struggle to shake off oppression in their own lives. More…

Steve Quester is a Brooklyn-based UFT Chapter leader and veteran early childhood educator. For more, see Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (jfrej.org) and Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (awaam.org).


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