Jewish Week: Arab School Battle Continues

(09/07/2007)
As Khalil Gibran school finally opens, supporters and opponents come out in force; critics lose a controversial leader.
Larry Cohler-Esses – Editor At Large
As a new public school focusing on Arab language and culture began classes this week in Brooklyn, supporters and opponents held separate events to mark the occasion, making it clear the controversy over its impact would go on.Tuesday morning, some 70 supporters awaited the first-day arrival of students at Khalil Gibran International Academy’s Boerum Hill site with a banner aloft reading “New Yorkers Support the Khalil Gibran School” and a table loaded with hummus, pitas and apple juice.But on the steps of City Hall, opponents denounced the school as a dangerous separatist outpost primed to indoctrinate children in radical Islamist doctrines.

The school and Almontaser have many Jewish supporters, thanks to years of interfaith work in which she was involved… 

“The people in this city oppose this school,” said Jeff Wiesenfeld, a leader of Stop the Madrassa, a group spearheading opposition to the school. “The city does not support this school.”With its opening, Khalil Gibran, a middle school designed to give students a dual language education in Arabic and English, and in Arab history and culture, becomes one of many such dual culture public schools in the city. Others include schools devoted to Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian and Greek language and culture, all in a small school setting. The school, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, opened with 55 students for its inaugural sixth grade class but is expected to eventually house 600 students for grades six through 10.Opponents charge Khalil Gibran will be a conduit for radical Muslim ideology rather than secular education. They point, among other things, to the dismissal last month of the school’s founding principal, Debbie Almontaser, after she gave an interview to the New York Post in which she failed to condemn a T-shirt bearing the message “Intifada NYC.” The shirts were produced by a group that shared office space with another group on whose board Almontaser sat.Almontaser has been replaced by Danielle Salzberg, an educator raised in an Orthodox Jewish family who does not speak Arabic. She had previously worked as liaison between the school and its primary outside funder, the New Visions Foundation.

Wiesenfeld termed her appointment “an attempt to calm down angry Jews, but a bigger insult if you’re an Arab American.”

But the school and Almontaser have also had many Jewish supporters, thanks to years of interfaith work in which she was involved. Defenders have included the Anti-Defamation League, which protested charges of extremism lodged against her. ADL was also in discussions with Khalil Gibran about introducing into the curriculum ADL’s program for teaching tolerance, A World of Difference.

Meanwhile, an individual previously listed as a leader and attorney for Stop the Madrassa was taken off its Web site this week following reports he held extremist views.

Wiesenfeld confirmed that David Yerushalmi, previously listed as a member of Stop the Madrassa’s national advisory board and its attorney, was now “gone.”

“It was an unnecessary distraction,” he said, explaining the decision. “His viewpoints became the issue as opposed to the school itself.”

A Jewish Week story two weeks ago reported that Yerushalmi’s published writings and public statements have included condemnations of Israel for being a Western-oriented democracy and denunciations of Zionists and Israelis as “raging leftists.” He has also declared his sympathy with the view of conservative critics who, he said, “profess to uncover the many and varied ways Jews destroy their host nations like a fatal parasite.” Yerushalmi has written that “the radical liberal Jew is a fact of the West and a destructive one.”

But reached by phone, Yerushalmi insisted he was still acting as attorney for Stop the Madrassa. “The simple fact is there has been no change in my status,” he said. “I don’t know what appeared on the Web site. But my role is legal counsel. That is what I am doing for this group.”

Also this week, former Mayor Ed Koch reiterated his support for Khalil Gibran despite a meeting with Wiesenfeld and Daniel Pipes, another prominent opponent of the school, in which the two tried to sway him to their side.

“There is nothing wrong with teaching Arabic language and Arab culture,” he said. “In fact, we need that.”

Koch said he continued to back the school based on his understanding that its policies and practices would be closely monitored by the city’s Department of Education.

Wiesenfeld, an ex-aide to Gov. George Pataki and former aide to Koch, said that he and Pipes met with Koch two weeks ago. “Pipes came to him with very specific data about how it’s almost impossible for this type of school not to become a madrassa over time,” related Wiesenfeld.

But rather than advocating its closure, said Wiesenfeld, Pipes told Koch that the school’s curriculum would have to be watched closely to ensure it remained secular and did not teach extremist views. Koch told Pipes that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein had promised to do just that.

“Pipes agreed with me,” said Koch on the question of monitoring. “Not Jeff. He was for not opening the school. He did not believe any school devoted to Arab culture should be permitted to open.”

Wiesenfeld confirmed this account. “The problem with [Koch’s] view is that it does not take into account the inertia of government. It’s easier to maintain the status quo. Once something is operating, it’s very hard to tear it down. It will develop its own constituency.”

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