Mar 17, 2010
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
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
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