The New York Sun has reported on an attack letter by a cohort called Communities in Support of Kahlil Gibran International Academy. The signatories, all members of the education establishment in one form or another, charge Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein with “supporting” a “campaign of lies, racial fear, and anti-Arab prejudice” that “forced” Dhabah “Debbie” Almontaser to resign as principal of that school. (Daniel Pipes offers a chronology of the affair here.)
The letter claims: “Debbie Almontaser did nothing wrong. She committed no crime. She violated no rules nor any terms of her contract. She was forced to resign after doing nothing more than answering a reporter’s question about the root meaning of the word 'intifada.'”
At the time, the issue of a publicly-funded Arabic-language school crystallized around Almontaser’s definition, with which she reportedly sought to justify the proliferation of t-shirts emblazoned with the logo “Intifada NYC.” According to a Westlaw report, in an interview she said she had no connection with the group selling the t-shirts, Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, though she did respond to a follow-up question about the meaning of “intifida.”
Here is her controversial reply as reported in The New York Post:
The word [intifada] basically means ’shaking off.' That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic. I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don't believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. I think it’s pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society . . .and shaking off oppression.
That is like saying the keffiyeh is just another scarf for keeping warm in the winter or insisting on some benign original meaning of the swastika, which even the Navajo Indians repudiated in 1940 according to this article.
Almontaser, under fire, admitted her mistake in a subsequent statement: “The word 'intifada' is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan. I regret suggesting otherwise. By minimizing the word’s historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me.” However, it was public outrage that forced her to issue her curious retraction. Her use of the word “minimize” somehow suggests that, for her, the word “intifada” still retains a purity independent of its “historical associations,” just as Marxism still attracts believers despite its historical failure.
Almontaser’s defenders go on to say:
For those of us working in the field of education, the treatment of Debbie Almontaser represents a threat not only to our rights as educators and citizens in a democratic society; it is also an attack on the small-schools movement and on the push for diversity and equity within our system of public education. Will bigotry be allowed to decide which public schools can exist and who can lead them?
Before Almontaser’s apologists allege that “fear-mongering bigots” conspired against her, they might first consider the definition of “bigotry.” A bigot is someone “who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.” By this definition and in light of Almontaser’s etymology of “intifada,” it is Almontaser who appears the bigot in her effort to gloss over the anti-Semitic violence specifically, concretely, and historically represented by the word “intifada.”
Almontaser has gone to court to get her job back, accusing the Department of Education of “discrimination.” After being bounced from a district court to an appeals court, her case will be given a full trial on the district level. Her lawyer has said:
The idea that people can lose their job because the press distorts what they say seems to disturb the court. It should disturb Chancellor Klein as well. There is something fundamentally wrong when the DOE insists that school employees speak publicly on an issue and then fires them when they do no more than accurately define a controversial word.
But, according to Westlaw’s reporting on the case before the Court of Appeals, when Almontaser’s case was before district court the first time around, it was determined that Almontaser’s definition of “shaking off” was accurately represented in the Post, as well as her remarks that “intifada” has “develop[ed] a negative connotation due to uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas” and that she “[didn't] believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City.” Both parties in the case agreed that the Post inaccurately appended “and shaking off oppression” to her statement, “I think [the t-shirts are] pretty much an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society.”
Now, if this constitutes the extent to which the press distorted Almontaser’s words, their essential substance remains unchanged. And if the press did indeed distort her words beyond what was established in court, why did she recant a statement if she never made it in the first place? The answer, according to the legal report, is as follows: “Under pressure form DOE officials, Almontaser issued an apology drafted by the DOE and resigned from her position as KGIA’s acting interim principal.”
Of course, such “pressure” is understandable, given Almontaser’s definition of “intifida.” Nontheless, it appears she is intent on playing the victim of some anti-Muslim conspiracy within the Department of Education and in the press. From the legal report, we learn that the “DOE press officer David Cantor instructed her to participate [in an interview about Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media], but not to address the t-shirts.” She was interviewed by Chuck Bennett, a reporter for The New York Post, with Melody Meyer, another DOE press officer, listening in. Meyer “interjected only once during the call to emphasize that Almontaser does not believe in volence” and later called Almontaser “to tell her that she did a good job.” Though Communities in Support of Kahlil Gibran International Academy will no doubt enlist these court findings, if they haven't already, to cast Almontaser as a victim of bigotry, it appears that, even in light of such findings, Almontaser was merely appropriately ostracized for a bigoted remark.
If the signatories to the letter accusing Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein of bigotry were really so sensitive about prejudice, they might wonder at the significance of Almontaser donning the hijab in public. What some might see as a chic assertion of “diversity” in a “multicultural” society is also an ominous reminder of the gender apartheid enforced in the Islamic world.