Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Intellectual dishonesty in NYT on Brooklyn Arabic public school

Samuel Freedman in the New York Times engages in an effectively dishonest characterization of the critics of the Khalil Gibran public school that is opening in Brooklyn next month:
Last Feb. 12, you may recall, New York education officials announced plans to open a minischool in September that would teach half its classes in Arabic and include study of Arab culture. The principal was to be a veteran teacher who was also a Muslim immigrant from Yemen, Debbie Almontaser.

The critical response began pouring in the very next day.

“I hope it burns to the ground just like the towers did with all the students inside including school officials as well,” wrote an unidentified blogger on the Web site Modern Tribalist, a hub of anti-immigrant sentiment. A contributor identified as Dave responded, “Now Muslims will be able to learn how to become terrorists without leaving New York City.”

Not to be outdone, the conservative Web site Political Dishonesty carried this commentary on Feb. 14:

“Just think, instead of jocks, cheerleaders and nerds, there’s going to be the Taliban hanging out on the history hall, Al Qaeda hanging out by the gym, and Palestinians hanging out in the science labs. Hamas and Hezbollah studies will be the prerequisite classes for an Iranian physics. Maybe in gym they’ll learn how to wire their bomb vests and they’ll convert the football field to a terrorist training camp.”

Thus commenced the smear campaign against the Khalil Gibran International Academy and, specifically, Debbie Almontaser. For the next six months, from blogs to talk shows to cable networks to the right-wing press, the hysteria and hatred never ceased. Regrettably, it worked.
Notice the sleight of hand that Freedman engages in. He starts off with the obviously bigoted comments by anonymous critics on obscure websites and then associates them with the very serious and significant criticisms of the Gibran school leveled by The New York Sun and New York Post. He ignores the real criticisms and by association accuses every critic of bigotry.
Ms. Almontaser resigned as principal earlier this month. Nominally, she quit to quell the controversy about her remarks to The New York Post insufficiently denouncing the term “intifada” on a T-shirt made by a local Arab-American organization. That episode, however, merely provided the pretext for her ouster, for the triumph of a concerted exercise in character assassination.
What really happened is that Almontaser was asked her opinion on a T-shirt created by a group she was tenuously associated with that trumpeted "NYC Intifada," and rather than "insufficiently denouncing" it she initially showed her support for it by claiming that the word Intifada, like the word Jihad, really meant something completely different than its popular, violent meaning. Sorry, but for all of her good points that Freedman goes on to praise - including relatives who served in Iraq and in the 9/11 rescue effort, and her own activities with interfaith activism - this episode showed her to be a poor choice as a role model for Arab Americans who would be attending that school. It means that she would have allowed, or even encouraged, her pupils to wear that T-shirt had the controversy not erupted.

Any public school promoting a culture and language that is closely associated with a religion and a political viewpoint - whether Arabic or Hebrew, as is happening in Florida - deserves extra oversight and scrutiny. Teaching Arabic in public schools is a very noble goal; celebrating a culture that is overwhelmingly at odds with American culture is far more problematic. A school that celebrates a violent terrorist uprising is simply not acceptable. In that context, what Debbie Almontaser did was way over the line. It is not necessarily impossible to create a fine school with an Arabic focus but it would be difficult.

More amazing than the New York Times allowing such a dishonest article to be published - not in the op-ed section but in the Education section - is that Freedman is a journalism professor at Columbia University. He is himself engaging in the character assassination that he criticizes right-wing commentators of pursuing, and this article is far from the kind of journalism one would hope is being taught at Columbia.

UPDATE: Soccer Dad does a good comparison on how the media is covering Gibran and Ben Gamla in Florida.