Mona Eldahry, founding director of AWAAM, at a community event in support of Debbie Almontaser and the KGIA

The Crime Against Debbie Almontaser

Even Bloomberg now admits that the victim of the New York “Intifada” t-shirt hysteria is no terrorist

BY Robert Hirschfield

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It’s hard to believe the article in the Aug. 6 New York Post that started it all could be taken seriously:

Activists with ties to the principal of the city’s Arabic-themed school are hawking T-shirts that glorify Palestinian terror, the Post has learned. The inflammatory tees boldly declare “Intifada NYC”–apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple.

The “principal” was educator Debbie Almontaser, who is Muslim. The “school” was the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a middle school that was designated as New York’s first Arabic public school. And Almontaser, it turned out, had no ties to the T-shirt “activists,” Arab Women Active In The Arts And Media (AWAAM). She merely sits on the board of the Saba Association of American Yemenis, which provides AWAAM free office space.

“The word intifada,” Almontaser explained to the Post, “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 Israeli-Palestinian 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.”

Four days later, after a public scolding from United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (“The word ‘intifada,’” Weingarten told the New York Times, was “something that ought to be denounced, not explained away”), the Post was able to report, “‘Intifada’ Principal Resigns.”

New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced that Almontaser’s resignation was in her school’s best interest. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also welcomed it.

On Aug. 20, at a Debbie Almontaser rally held outside the old Tweed Courthouse near City Hall, demonstrators tried to understand how a right-wing newspaper in a city like New York could force the resignation of a respected community figure by tarring her with the “terrorist” brush.

Deborah Howard, who worked with Almontaser to get the Khalil Gibran academy off the ground, asked, “Once the tabloids came out with their smear campaign”–the neo-conservative New York Sun also played its part–“where was the counter-media? If this is a Department of Education school, why aren’t they standing behind Debbie?”

AWAAM’s Erica Waples ran around the crowd of progressive Jews, Muslim activists and at least one black Baptist minister from Brooklyn, soothing the anxious buzz of the attending media. “The biggest issue,” she says, “is fear. We live in a post-9/11 culture of fear. AWAAM is afraid of showing the videos our girls made, because then they can be identified, and we don’t want them to be targeted.”

The Post’s reporting was the yellow press version of the fearmongering that drives the Stop The Madrassa Coalition (or, as it announces itself on its website: “Stop The Madrassa: Protecting Our Schools From Islamist Curricula”). The Coalition, a right-wing citizen’s group that includes the crack-pot blogger Daniel Pipes, wants Khalil Gibran closed down. Almontaser’s resignation, sufficient for Klein and Bloomberg, was not enough for Stop The Madrassa.

On his weekly radio show, following the principal’s resignation, Bloomberg made a nervous reference to Almontaser, that suggested how much this fiasco resembled a witch hunt.

“She’s very smart,” he admitted. “She is certainly not a terrorist.”

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer who covers Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. He has written for The Progressive, The National Catholic Reporter and Sojourners.

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