Arabic Public School Sparks Debate


The announcement of a planned public school in Brooklyn focusing on Arab culture has taken the city’s education department into uncharted waters, fielding concerns over fundamentalism and the propriety of singling out cultures.

Local Jewish groups either favor the creation of the Khalil Gibran International Academy — to open next year for 81 sixth to 12th grade students of all ethnic backgrounds — or have taken no position against it, even as some commentators sound alarms.

“Arabic instruction is heavy with Islamist and Arabist overtones and demands,” wrote anti-terrorism activist Daniel Pipes on his Web site, insisting such a school in New York would have to be “under close scrutiny,” but probably would not be because of political correctness.

In a May 8 editorial, the New York Sun cited a litany of people accused or convicted of terrorism plots all with ties to Brooklyn and noted, “Arabic Islamist terrorism in Brooklyn is a genuine threat.”

The paper noted that the school’s future principal, Debbie Almontaser, an immigrant from Yemen, once received an award from the Council on American Islamic Relations, a group that has been accused of supporting terrorism, and that she refused to tell a reporter whether she considered Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist groups.

Almontaser, however, is regarded as a bridge-builder by Jewish community leaders, and has worked with the Jewish Community Relations Council on dialogue projects after 9/11 as well as a health coalition. The JCRC has not taken a position on the school. But the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to the Department of Education in support of the decision.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education (DOE), Melody Meyer, said the school, named after a Lebanese poet, would be strictly secular.

“This isn’t a tool or vehicle for religious ideology, “ she said. “If it shows any indication of becoming so, we will close it.”

Almontaser has appointed three Brooklyn rabbis to her advisory council, alongside four Christian ministers, three imams and a representative of the Society for Ethical Culture.

That prompted Pipes to ask on his Web site: “If the KGIA has no religious content, then why is every one of its advisory council members a reverend, rabbi, or imam, plus one Ethical Culture representative? Is this not a blatant contradiction?”

The rabbis are Andrew Bachman of the Reform Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Melissa Weintraub of Rabbis for Human Rights, and Micah Kelber of the Conservative Bay Ridge Jewish Center.

Marc Stern, counsel to the American Jewish Congress, called the composition of the advisory board “clumsy. It shows a lack of imagination. They are putting together this group, presumably, to be alert to abuses and make sure nothing [wrong] is happening.”

Meyer, after speaking with Almontaser, told The Jewish Week the principal had filled the advisory board with people with whom she has worked in interfaith dialogue groups.

“They have a prominent voice in the community and are able to reach a lot of other people and talk to the hearts of people,” said Meyer. “That’s what’s important to her.”

Meyer said the advisory board would not have an impact on curriculum.

She said the Arabic library would not include religious texts but mostly translations of American literature.

The question, said Stern, was whether the school was undermining the goal of public schools to make children feel part of society at large.

“Properly run, this school is not necessarily a problem, but one needs to think about what it means to set up a school focusing on a single culture,” he said. “Is there a sense of a national community, not just a particular ethnic, smaller community?” But such concerns, he said, “should not invalidate the school.”

Councilman Simcha Felder, who represents one of the city’s most heavily Jewish districts in Borough Park, Brooklyn, said on Monday that he had met with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to discuss the Gibran school and voiced his concerns about how its curriculum would portray Jews and Israel.

“The person running the school is supposed to have a very good reputation,” said Felder. “More importantly, there are specific guidelines in place that would allow them to close it down” if improper instruction occurred, he said.

Noting the criticism of the academy, Felder said he thought it was unfair “to target this school.”

“We don’t want people doing to others what we don’t want done to us. You can’t close something down because it has the word Arab in it.”

Winning approval for a specialty school is an arduous process handled by the DOE’s Department of New Schools in conjunction with a panel of advisers that includes the teachers and principals’ unions and privately funded educational foundations.

The DOE began opening specialty schools in 2003 and has since opened one focusing on Asian culture. A school devoted to Latin American culture is also planned for next year.

Felder said he had been in touch with proponents of a Hebrew-oriented school, but would not provide further details.

Meyer, the DOE spokeswoman, said it was too soon to comment on whether such a school was planned. “We haven’t accepted any proposals yet, but we would certainly welcome a Yiddish or Hebrew-language school,” she said, noting that a public school in Williamsburg already offers a bilingual Yiddish-ESL program for special education students.

She also said Almontaser planned to offer Hebrew classes at the Khalil Gibran school, as part of its focus on the Middle East.

In response to the media attacks, Jonathan Zimmerman, a history teacher at New York University, wrote a column in the Daily News last week defending the Arabic school, saying it will serve the public interest. “There’s no reason to think the Gibran academy will turn patriotic Americans into Al Qaeda sympathizers,” he wrote. “In fact, to win the war on terrorism, we’re going to need many more people who know Arabic, know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites and understand the complex culture of the Middle East.”