James Zogby Interviews Debbie Almontaser

6/26/08

Up next is going to be Debbie Almontaser, former principal of New York City’s first Arabic public school and the controversy that is surrounding that school.

Thank you for being with us.

We’ll be right back with Debbie Almontaser.

JZ: Welcome back, I’m Jim Zogby, my next guest is Debbie Almontaser, she’s the former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, New York City’s first public school dedicated to the study of the Arabic language and culture.

17-year veteran of the New York City public school system known as a bridge builder among Muslims, Christians and Jews in New York City.

Currently serves as director of special projects in the New York City Department of Education.

She was forced to step down as principal of the Gibran Academy last August.

I want to tell that story and get her reaction to it but she’s joining us now live from our studio in New York.

Thank you so much for being with us, Debbie.

DA: Thank you, James.

JZ: The idea was hatched about three years ago and then about a year and a half ago the Department of Education approved it.

And at that point things began to fall apart almost rather quickly.

Daniel Pipes and The New York Sun and “The New York Post” took on this issue and created a bit of hysteria.

It was ìMadrasa comes to Brooklynî and all the rest of it.

You were forced to resign and take another post and the school opened be another principal who didn’t even speak Arabic and it has not gone well, the “New York Times” did a rather excellent piece describing the fact that the school under the new leadership didn’t come off as one might have hoped, as you might have hoped it would have come off.

So now there’s a sort of re-examination of the whole thing.

To see a dream become a nightmare.

Talk to us a little about what it’s been like for you personally to go through this?

DA: Well, Jim, as an educator and Arab-American leader in New York City, someone whose spent a great deal of time building bridges between diverse communities and really dedicating my life to the public school systems as an educator.

You know, to have something like this happen was deeply disturbing.

As well as disappointing.

Being that so many people know who I am and what I represent, the fact that I am a mother of a national reservist who served at ground zero for six months.

The fact that I have a large number of family members who have served in the military, five of my nephews have all been deployed to Iraq.

Several other members of my family who are in the New York police department.

All of this information never made it into any of the inform ation that was spun out there about this school.

And to see myself, you know, turned into this caricature that did not resemble who I am and what I stood for was deeply, deeply disturbing and sad because this is not what America is about.

It’s about encouraging and celebrating the efforts of many people of different faiths and traditions and cultures to come to this country and to carve out something called the American dream.

JZ: I’ve dealt with the cast of characters that you’re dealing with now for many years, and I was stunned when I saw the statements that they made about you personally, and about the school.

As just horrifying and bigoted, on face value bigoted.

I was struck by that.

One of the comments that Daniel Pipes made was the very teaching of Arabic, learning Arabic implies learning a Pan-Arab and Pan-Islamist mindset that you couldn’t do it without inculcating these kinds of extremist values and he at one point described

something about the biggest danger is not the extremist Muslims, it’s the moderate Muslims like you because you’re subverting the society in a gentle way.

A gentle kind of subversion.

Were there people in leadership roles who understood that this was just patent bigotry, and not anything more sophisticated than that — bigotry, not anything more?

DA: From the very start when this school was approved in February of 2006, um 2007, I’m sorry.

The support was incredible.

Th e Department of Education, the mayor’s office was incredibly supportive.

And felt New York City would benefit from such a school being in this city, Unfortunately, they were not prepared for such heinous attacks on the school as well as on me, the individual.

And so as much as they tried to stand up to some of these claims on Fox news and what have you, it was not enough.

But the support was there from all different communities, the Jewish community, the Christian community.

People within the academic world, people I’ve worked with for many years who saw the significance and relevance of such a school especially because the school’s mission was to develop global citizens who would become bridge builders and ambassadors of peace and hope.

JZ: Let’s get callers out there in the conversation; the numbers will be up onscreen.

JZ: There was one episode in particular that got blown up into something really quite large.

We’ll call it the T-shirt episode.

It reminded me of the Kevin bacon the six degrees of separation story.

Somebody had seen it at an Arab festival wearing a T-shirt that said ìIntifada, New York City,î it turned out that T-shirt was distributed by an art collector who had an office part-time in a Yemeni-American center that it turned out you were one of the board members of, and you got all tied up into that and the quote that was taken from you when asked what the word intifada means you defined what20the word meant and “The New York Post” ran with that.

Describe what I left out in that story and what was done with it, pretty difficult situation.

I remember the headline in “The New York Post.”

DA: Well, the Arab organization that you mention is a youth empowerment organization for girls, serving inner city youth, and they were using a space in an organization which I sat on the board to run a summer youth program.

This organization is providing, you know, a resource that is void within the Arab and Muslim communities as well as with the broader communities, teaching young women how to use the arts and media to tell their own stories and have a voice.

What happened was as you described, this T-shirt was at the Arab heritage park festival which they found out about this festival by the intensive research that they did on me as an individual and found out that I was the one who spearheaded Arab Heritage Week, and its inauguration here in New York City in 2005.

So they found out about the event, took a picture of this T-shirt, did their research, and made this tenuous connection that I had something to do with it and should be forced out of the position being that I endorsed such a T-shirt.

The press release was put out there, and the media called the Department of Education, they called me, and I simply said to them this T-shirt and its organization have nothing to do with me or this school.

And therefore, there ‘s really no story here to tell.

I am a principal of this school.

I sit on a board of an organization as many other principals do; this does not have anything to do with my role as principal.

And from that point on “The New York Post” insisted on an interview. The original agreement was to put together a statement, he sent over the questions.

I answered them, the Department of Education press office was supposed to develop it into a statement.

Time ran out.

And at 4:30 they called me, the press office of the department and said you have to do this interview.

It’s in your best interest to do the interview.

He’s running out of time, and you must do it.

It’s either you or he’s going to print what was in the press release.

And I made it very clear that “The New York Post” does not have my interest or the school’s interest, based on their anti-Arab anti-Muslim sentiment that has continued for years.

So the interview took place, he asked me about the organization and the T-shirt and I simply said to him the organization and its T-shirt have nothing to do with the school or me as the principal, therefore there’s really nothing to talk about.

Moving forward into the discussion, he asked me for the root word of the word intifada and I simply said to him, you know, as a reporter, you should have been doing your homework and his response was, I did and I came up with many definitions but I was not able to locate the root word of the word intifada.

While I was on the phone with him there was a press person from the Department of Education on the phone with me who did not jump in and say Debbie, you don’t have to respond to this or this is an unfair question.

And therefore, as an educator I simply responded by saying to him the root word is ìshake offî however, you have to understand this word as evolved and developed different means for different mention for different people based to be Palestinians-Israeli conflict where thousands of people have been killed, for many people this word has developed a negative connotation. Moving forward in the interview he then said ìwell we have reason to believe that these young women are training for Gaza-style uprising in New York City.î

[laughter]

And as an educator as a mother, seeing these young women being vilified who don’t have the opportunity to go away to camp or be put into these prestigious summer camps, this was a way for them to utilize their time and learn something, and for him to vilify them was something that I simply as an educator and a mother could not see happen and I simply said to him I don’t believe these girls are going to be engaging in any violent act.

They are just, you know, in a summer program finding their voice through the arts and media, nothing more, nothing less, and we went on to respond to other questions about the school.

The next day he portrayed me as defending the T-shirt and the girlsí actions in creating the T-shirt.

And he made it seem that I minimized the historical context of the word intifada, and as you can see from my balanced response to him, and knowing full well when I responded that had I wanted to make sure that I maintained neutrality and not plunge myself

into the political arena, by simply giving the root word and further explaining how this word has evolved and means different things for different people —

JZ: And from there it became a terror school and you became a supporter of terrorism and that’s what led to your forced resignation.

Listen, we’re running out of time but I’m so glad you had a chance to talk us through the whole story.

We’re not going to be able to get into any calls but I did want to have you do exactly what you did, which was sort of talk to our international viewers and our local viewers here about what happened.

Tell me just right now quickly because we have little time, are you getting support from the city, is Mayor Bloomberg supporting you because I know you’d worked on a commission with him?

Are you getting support from the city at all?

DA: Absolutely not.

Not from Mayor Bloomberg, in fact Mayor Bloomberg, it was his directive to have me removed, but I am getting extensive support from the broader New York City public, rabbis, ministers, community leaders from differen t communities have come together

and coalesced and formed a group called ìCommunities in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy and Debbie Almontaserî who put up this elaborate website that has information outlining everything that’s happened from the beginning to the present.

http://www.kgia.wordpress.com.

JZ: Thank you, so much, Debbie, we’re out of time, sorry for the callers, but I really wanted to have you have a chance to hear this story.

My thanks to Dennis Kucinich, George Abed, and Debbie Almontaser and see you next week on “Viewpoint.”

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