What’s Arabic for “witch hunt”?

In any language, a witch hunt is what led Debbie Almontaser to step down as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. Due to open in Brooklyn this fall, it will be New York City’s first Arabic-themed public school.

The city was right to approve the school in the first place, but dead wrong not to offer it and Almontaser a robust, unapologetic defense in the face of fearmongering. Instead, a tempest in a teapot forced a qualified candidate out of her job – and what we got from Chancellor Joel Klein, Mayor Bloomberg and others was just damage control.

Moreover, the naming of Danielle Salzberg, a non-Arabic speaker, as Almontaser’s interim replacement was a serious mistake. Salzberg may be a fine educator, but an Arabic-themed school deserves a principal familiar with the language and culture it will teach.

The least the city can do now is name an Arab-American educator to lead Gibran Academy in time for the start of the new school year. And we must ask why we let such a shameful smear campaign – one that now continues, with plans to claim the school itself as a casualty – go unchecked.

Officially, Almontaser resigned this month in the wake of a furor over the fact that she didn’t condemn the word “intifadeh” on a T-shirt. But Almontaser didn’t defend Palestinian violence against Israelis, as her critics claim. She simply tried to offer a wider context for a word most Americans associate only with terrorist violence.

That’s called education; but because she is an Arab and a Muslim, her statements were subject to greater scrutiny and suspicion.

Critics had targeted Almontaser for months – maliciously calling the school a “madrassah,” and combing through her past for signs of transgressions. You can be sure that if it hadn’t been the T-shirts – which had nothing to do with Almontaser or her school – it would have been something else.


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