A diverse group that included Arab-American activists and Jewish educators rallied on the steps of the Department of Education on Monday to demand the reinstatement of Debbie Almontaser to the helm of the city’s first Arabic language and culture academy.
The rally came less than two weeks after Almontaser resigned amid an uproar over her defense of a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Intifada NYC,” and a Jewish, non-Arabic-speaking educator was appointed in her place to run the school, which is slated to begin its first school year next month in a Dean Street middle- and high-school building.
Almontaser, the founder of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, had been quoted in the New York Post earlier this month defending the T-shirt on the grounds that the word “intifada” literally translates as “shaking off.”
“Debbie should lead this school because she founded it, and it’s her vision,” said Mona Eldahry, founding director of Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM), the organization that sells the “Intifada NYC” T-shirts and shares an office with another organization associated with Almontaser. Eldahry was one of the organizers of the rally, which drew close to 200 people.
“Debbie attempted to educate the public about the word ‘intifada’ [by using] a definition you’ll find in any dictionary.”
Almontaser later condemned the use of “intifada” on the T-shirts, but the damage was done. Her initial comments sparked a furor that culminated in a public scolding from teacher’s union head Randi Weingarten and Almontaser’s resignation on Aug. 10.
The Department of Education then filled Almontaser’s post with Danielle Salzberg, a Jewish educator who speaks no Arabic and has no apparent knowledge of Arab culture. Former mayor Ed Koch called the move “spitting in their eye.”
Aliya Latif, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations-NY, which sponsored Monday’s rally, agreed with Koch’s pithy assessment. “A dual-language program requires a principal who is well versed in the Arabic language and culture,” Latif told The Brooklyn Paper.
At Monday’s rally, dozens of organizations supported Almontaser, including the Brooklyn-based Make the Road by Walking.