Debbie Almontaser has won a victory in her battle against discrimination. She was the founding principal of the first Arabic-language public school in the United States, until a campaign of hate forced her out. She is well known for her success in bridging cultural divides, bringing together Muslims, Christians and Jews, yet as the new school neared its opening date in the summer of 2007, she became the target of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab attacks. Last week, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that the New York City Department of Education (DOE) discriminated against her "on account of her race, religion and national origin."
The school is called the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Gibran was a Lebanese-born writer and philosopher. His best-known book, "The Prophet," published in 1923, has sold more than 100 million copies in 40 languages. A line from "The Prophet," prominent on the academy's website, reads, "The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind."
But open-mindedness was hardly the response of a fringe group called Stop the Madrassa. The group used the Arabic word for school because of its negative connotations with religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The academy was developed as a secular, dual-language public school for sixth through 12th grades and had no religious curriculum. As the small but vocal group of opponents continued to take issue with the planned school, the DOE compelled Almontaser to submit to an interview with Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. The article's headline read: "City Principal Is ‘Revolting.' "
In the interview, Almontaser was asked to explain the use of the word intifada, because the word appeared on a T-shirt of a women's organization that sometimes used the offices of a community group where she was a board member. The T-shirt had nothing to do with the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Almontaser told me: "He asked me one or two questions about the school and then asked me for the root word of the word intifada. As an educator, I simply responded and said to him that it comes from the root word of the word infad in Arabic, which is ‘shake off'; however, this word has developed a negative connotation based on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where thousands of people have died. Within the interview, I stated that I ... condemn all violence, any shape, way or form."
Her lawyer, Alan Levine, told me: "Debbie was the victim of a smear campaign. ... The bigots in the community had no power to fire; the Department of Education did. They succumbed to the bigots." The EEOC report concluded, "DOE succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel, and a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on DOE as an employer." Almontaser is seeking reinstatement as principal of the KGIA, along with back pay, damages and legal fees. The New York City Law Department has vowed to fight her. Levine hopes for a settlement, but is prepared to file a lawsuit, saying: "The EEOC, which has no ax to grind [and] is the country's premier agency with regard to employment discrimination claims, says that they did discriminate. I'll go with the EEOC. I'm confident that a judge or jury will." Days after the EEOC letter was delivered, the non-Arab-American principal of the KGIA stepped down, without explanation, and was replaced by an Arab-American educator.
Three years ago, in the midst of the firestorm, a group of prominent Jewish leaders, including 15 rabbis, wrote an open letter to the Jewish community in support of Almontaser, saying, "We seek your support and respect for a colleague and friend who has suffered and continues to suffer from a disturbing and growing prejudice in our midst ... her return to her children [at the KGIA] will only bring greater peace and understanding between people of all faiths in our educational system and in our city as a whole." This case, as a metaphor, has broader implications, as protests continue in the streets of Jerusalem following the Israeli announcement of thousands of new housing units in occupied East Jerusalem, blindsiding Vice President Joe Biden as he began a peacemaking visit there.
Almontaser told me, "It's my life's dream ... to lead a school, to establish an institution that would set precedents in helping building bridges of understanding and certainly creating young people who will be global thinkers, competing in the 21st century work force." Hers is a vision the New York City Department of Education should embrace, with her prompt reinstatement.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.