Once again, the hard-hitting, no-nonsense journalists of the New York Sun, the New York Post, and Fox News, led as always by intrepid scholar Daniel Pipes, have struck a blow in the war against terrorism. I’m referring, of course, to the rooting out of the former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an alleged terrorism sympathizer who defined but inexplicably failed to condemn an Arabic word used on a T-shirt produced by an organization entirely unrelated to the school.
The principal, a veiled Arab-American by the name of Debbie Almontaser, has been agitating for years to get an Arabic-language school going in Brooklyn. Yes, there’s no other word for it: agitating. While veiled.
The T-shirt that raised the maelstrom said “Intifada NYC.” Asked about the meaning of the slogan, she replied, incredibly, that the term “intifada” means a shaking off of oppressive conditions. Wrong answer! She resigned soon afterward. The correct answer was stated definitively by an Anti-Defamation League spokesman, who described Almontaser’s comments as “a reflection of a movement that increasingly lauds violence against Israelis instead of rejecting it.”
Of course Almontaser was interrogated about the T-shirt. She’s Arab-American, she’s veiled, and she speaks Arabic, right? She wanted an Arabic school, didn’t she? We have a right to know what position the school is going to take on what could turn out to be a nest of home-grown terrorists in the heart of Brooklyn.
Let’s take her at her word and assume that the oppressive conditions denoted by the word “intifada” are not in fact created by the state of Israel. Entirely irrelevant. Equally irrelevant is that fact that the word entered the English lexicon since it became widely known as the label given to describe the Palestinian response in the late 1980s to Israel’s untiring attempts since 1967 to improve living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. What gets my goat is this: I just don’t see why I should have to come across Arabic words on T-shirts worn by teenage girls in New York City.
And not just any word, either. How insensitive can people be? Don’t they realize how toxic the word “intifada” is to New Yorkers? Why should they be forced to relive those dark days in the late 1980s, when they had to talk fast and loudly to justify Israel’s novel use of bone-breaking to save the lives of unarmed Palestinian demonstrators? Yes, Israeli soldiers took to Palestinian kneecaps with wooden bats to stop them from throwing stones and hanging out in the street chanting their foreign chants, and when the wooden bats kept breaking, they turned to metal ones. I can understand that some people might think that rounding up Palestinian men and boys and holding them still while their kneecaps were bashed in seems a little excessive. But what were the Israelis supposed to do, keep shooting at Palestinians walking in the streets? By the time that miserable period was over, 1,162 Palestinians (cunningly unarmed) had been shot dead. Thank God for statesmen like the late Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister and a Nobel Prize winner, who had the wisdom and compassion to give the simple order that must have saved some Palestinian lives (the 1,162 dead notwithstanding): “break their bones.”
Back to Brooklyn: Almontaser was foolish enough to think that people were asking her what the word on the T-shirt meant because they couldn’t get their hands on a bilingual dictionary. Hello! Trying to put a neutral spin on a bad situation, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (unconvincingly, in my book) advised New Yorkers that Almontaser was not a terrorist but simply not media savvy; she “tried to explain a word rather than just condemn” it.
Hizzoner Bloomberg is too generous by far. A word like that should be condemned, and often. And so should all the other words of Arabic origin that snuck their way into English. I don’t know how many hundreds of them there are, but I don’t see why we can’t replace them with good old American alternatives. With time, we can get used to referring to alcohol as liquor, and sugar as sweet white granules. Drop the useless zero altogether! See, it’s really not that hard to do without if you put your mind to it. It could be worse, you know; if we spoke Spanish and wanted to do what I’m proposing, we’d have to get rid of thousands of words. I get tired just thinking about the effort involved.
I’ve been working my way to the real issue here: What is this school supposed to be teaching, anyway? Thanks to Pipes’s monitoring of the situation, we now know that Almontaser apparently thought the school could teach Arabic language, the history of colonialism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Islamic culture. Not necessary at all, if you ask me. Arabic, spoken by hundreds of millions of Arabs on the planet, and tens of millions of others as a second language, is a troublesome language. Pipes tells us very clearly that “Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage.” And Joel Levy, the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, reminded us that teaching Arabic to Americans constitutes a “national security issue.” That says it all: The language is both bad and dangerous. We can do without it in Brooklyn. (And anyway, why should our students learn Arabic when that tax-deductible Middle East media watchdog MEMRI can give us ready-made translations of anything its staff wants us to know?)
Let’s get real for a minute. What do we care about colonialism, when no other country would be insane enough to try to colonize us or can muster enough force to effectively resist our efforts to colonize them? And what is there to know about the Arab-Israeli conflict that hasn’t already been drilled into our heads by the ace reporters at Fox News and the brilliant commentary of Daniel Pipes, always ready with the right expert opinion on Middle East matters?
Speaking of Pipes, he doesn’t get enough credit by far. This versatile scholar is not only an expert on the threat posed by Arabs and Muslims to this great nation; he’s the one who came up with the idea of Campus Watch, so students could evaluate their teachers on whether they are enamored or critical of Israel. Sort of a “who’s been naughty and who’s been nice” list. And we need to know this, because we give Israel a ton of aid — more than $3 billion a year to be approximate. (It’s hard to be precise when money for Israel comes from so many sources and is buried in so many other government agency budgets.) Some people have the nerve to compare the Campus Watch list to a McCarthyite tactic and about 100 wise-ass academics, trying to be cute, demanded to be put on the list. I hope they got their wish, but I guess we’ll never know, since the list was taken off the Website. Maybe that’s just as well; if it is maintained secretly, we won’t have to listen to anyone whine about it.
Why must a school in Brooklyn teach Islamic culture and civilization? How will it help American students to succeed in life if they spend time learning that 1,000 years ago, the Muslim form of government was more democratic than those silly Europeans had established for themselves? Do we really need to know that Baghdad was the seat of learning, where scholars were charting new directions in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, and literature? Isn’t it a little late to be studying this now, when we’ve been bombing the dickens out of Baghdad for the last 15 years or so?
Besides, why should they get any ideas in their head about Islamic civilization? Think about the questions they might raise when they tune in to the talk shows and hear the lively, free-wheeling political discussion we are able to enjoy in our fine democracy (thankfully kept to a minimum) on the airwaves and television. Think about the discomfort they may experience the next time we are asked to support the great US military on another of its adventures to bring democracy to yet another Arab dictatorship.
Let’s do away with Arabic in our schools and in our public life, I say. And I’m willing to bet good money that a Transportation Security Administration official at Kennedy Airport was striking a blow for that worthy goal when he tried to prevent Raed Jarrar from boarding a plane in Oakland, California while wearing a T-shirt reading the slogan “We will not be silent” in English and Arabic. That word again: Arabic. What was Jarrar thinking? Did the officer really have to spell it out for him, that wearing a T-shirt with Arabic on it is like a “person wearing a T-shirt at a bank stating, ‘I am a robber’ ”? Use your head, for crying out loud. Traveling with Arabic text on a T-shirt is even worse than traveling while Arab; with the T-shirt, you are an arrest waiting to happen, but as an Arab, you have a chance (albeit not a great one) of being waved through.
Back to the school — bear with me, I’m almost through. Alert New York Sun reader (identified only as “Gretchen”) commented that the school should be required never to hire a practicing Muslim as a principal. I’m glad that the school board went one step further and hired acting principal Danielle Salzberg to replace Almontaser. She is no Arab-American, she’s not veiled, and it gets better: she doesn’t speak a word of Arabic. With any luck, perhaps Ms. Salzberg can be prevailed upon to lighten up on the raison d’etre of the school — to teach Arabic. And while they’re at it, better to downplay the poet whose name was slapped on the school, too. Khalil Gibran was a poet who liked Walt Whitman and whose work The Prophet was carried to World War II by scores of GIs, but don’t forget that he was also Lebanese, which means that he spoke and wrote Arabic. Even worse, when he immigrated to the US at the end of the 19th century, his part of the world was referred to as “Greater Syria.” Like we need or want reminders of Lebanon OR Syria in Brooklyn, for heaven’s sake.
I can’t end this without saying a few heartfelt words to Almontaser. Ms. Almontaser, you should have realized that as an Arab-American, a native Arabic speaker, and a veiled woman, your presence in Brooklyn is an ongoing provocation to law-abiding citizens. You could have made things easier on yourself by leading the charge against the organization printing the T-shirts; your words and actions would have been beyond reproach had you demanded that the State Department add that nonprofit community organization to its list of terrorist sponsors. But I’d be lying if I said that that alone would have been sufficient to save your job or your school. Yes, that’s right: your school. You didn’t think this storm was going to blow away with your resignation, did you? If you did, you really are a media novice, as Hizzoner Bloomberg observed. Look, Pipes wrote very clearly (15 August) in a New York Sun article: “The next step is to get the academy itself cancelled.” And he’s just the man to make sure that it does. The man never rests.
Ida Audeh is a Palestinian from the West Bank who works as a technical editor in Boulder, CO. She is the author of the five-part series, “Living in the Shadow of the Wall,” published by Electronic Intifada on 16 November 2003; “Picking Olives and Removing Roadblocks as Acts of Resistance: An Interview with Ghassan Andoni,” Counterpunch, 28 October 2002; and “Narratives of Siege: Eyewitness Testimonies from Jenin, Bethlehem, and Nablus,” Journal of Palestine Studies, no. 124 (Summer 2002). She can be reached at idaaudeh AT yahoo DOT com.