Who is Debbie Almonstaser?

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Debbie Almontaser (also Dhaba Almontaser or Dhabah Almontaser) is a teacher[1] of Yemeni descent who was the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a New York Arab-themed public school, named after the Christian Arab poet, Khalil Gibran.

Almontaser was forced by the Department of Education and the Mayor of the City of New York to resign after a controversy arose over a T-shirt created by a group called “Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media”, an organization that used office space to run its youth program at Saba: Association of Yemeni American which Almontaser is a board member.[2] The T-shirt had the words, “Intifada NYC” on it, which, according to the New York Post, was “apparently a call for a Gaza-style uprising in the Big Apple“.[3] Bennet asked Almontaser for the Arabic root word of the word Intifada. Almontaser, who was accompanied on the phone by a Dept of Education press expert, explained that the word “comes from the root word that means ‘shaking off’. That is the root word if you look it up in Arabic.” To a follow up question stating the girls at AWAAM are planning a Gaza-style uprising, Almontaser added that she understood that “it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas” and that she does not “believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City.” The Post quoted her as saying “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.” (ellipses in original)[3]. The “it’s” in her statement is referring to the training the girls were getting at this youth program.

Almontaser denied using the phrase “shaking off oppression,” and a federal appeals court ruled that the Post had quoted her “incorrectly and misleadingly.”[4]

The next day, the Board of Education issued a statement without her approval that said, “By minimizing the word’s historical associations I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence….That view is anathema to me and the very opposite of my life’s work.”[5]

On August 9, 2007 Randi Weingartend president of the New York City teacher’s union, wrote a letter to the Post agreeing with the editorial and calling for Almontaser’s head. New Visions for Public Schools, Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomber demanded Almontaser’s resignation by 8 AM the next morning threatening to nix the school if she didn’t resign. The full account was highlighted in the front page New York Times article “Critics Cost Muslim Educator Her Dream Job”.

The New York Post immediately called Almontaser the “Intifada Principal” and published an editorial with the headline “What’s Arabic for ‘Shut It Down’?”[7] Randi Weingarten, president of the New York City teacher’s union, wrote a letter to the Post agreeing with the editorial.[8]

However, in a New York Times article, journalism professor Samuel G. Freedman wrote, “For anyone who bothered to look for it, Ms. Almontaser left a clear, public record of interfaith activism and outreach across the boundaries of race, ethnicity and religion. Her efforts, especially after the September 11 attacks, earned her honors, grants and fellowships. She has collaborated so often with Jewish organizations that an Arab-American newspaper, Aramica, castigated her earlier this summer for being too close to a ‘Zionist organization,’ meaning the Anti-Defamation League. Ms. Almontaser has twice been profiled on Voice of America as an accomplished Muslim American.”[9] Though media sources have sometimes misquoted Amontaser and misrepresented the facts, there have been numerous interviews directly with Almontaser which have allowed her to tell her story. Some examples are her recent interviews on National Public Radio’s the Brian Lehrer Show [10], and Democracy Now! [11]

Local politicians like Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz have expressed support for Almontaser, calling for her to be reinstated. Markowitz noted that Almontaser “was dumped on, and she doesn’t deserve it” and that he has “witnessed her work, bringing Muslims and Jews and other religions together.” [12] Additionally, Councilman John Liu noted that the Department of Education, “and this administration acted totally irresponsibly and violated the trust placed in them in what they allowed to happen to Debbie Almontaser.”[13]

Along with local politicians, there was an outpouring of community support for Almontaser, with hundreds of individuals and organizations signing statements in support of Almontaser and the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] . A group called Communities in Support of the Khalil Gibran International Academy formed in order to support the school as well as Almontaser. This group believes that KGIA needs better support from the Department of Education and New Visions in order to succeed, and has been a strong voice for Debbie Almontaser’s reinstatement throughout this controversy. This group organized press conferences and press releases in order to get the truth out. It also organized an event celebrating the original vision of the school on January 29,2008 where a few hundred people attended to support Debbie Almontaser’s and the school she envision with her design team who were honored that evening. [19], and maintains an informational website at http://kgia.wordpress.com/

On November 19, 2007, Almontaser brought a lawsuit claiming that, in forcing her to resign because of her interview with the New York Post, and denying her the opportunity to be considered for the position of permanent principal at the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the Department of Education violated her First Amendment rights.[20][21] On February 5, 2008, Almontaser requested that the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan grant a preliminary injunction to force the board of education to give her an interview for the job of principal.[22] On March 20, the Appeals court rejected her request and sent it back to the trial court.[23][24]

On March 3, she filed an amended complaint in her federal lawsuit and a charge with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, both of which assert that Department of Education (DOE) officials discriminated against her on the basis of race, religion, and national origin

According to the Jewish Week, Almontaser invited hundreds of Jews and Christians to her own home after the 9/11 attack. She had joined organizations to form social action groups, such as We Are All Brooklyn, an inter-ethnic initiative supported by the Jewish Community Relations Council, to combat hate crimes in Brooklyn. Almontaser also trained with the Anti-Defamation League’s anti-bias program, A World of Difference, as a facilitator for diversity training and inter-group dynamics in the public schools.[26]

She conducted sensitivity training and presentations in Churches, Synagogues and other houses of worship.[1] Almontaser has also worked as a liaison between the Muslim community and the NYPD.[27] Her son spent months at the World Trade Center site as a member of the Army National Guard and her cousins have served the US Military in Iraq.

Almontaser has also been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Pax Christi Metro New York 2008 Peacemaker Award [28], and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s annual Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Award in 2007

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