August 11, 2007 — The principal of a controversial city-funded Arab-themed school abruptly resigned yesterday after she ignited a firestorm by saying there was nothing wrong with T-shirts that said “Intifada NYC.”
Pressure for Debbie Almontaser’s ouster had mounted all week since her tortured explanation that “intifada” was a message of empowerment. The inflammatory statement was about Arab women in New York City “shaking off oppression” and not supporting the Palestinian uprising that killed thousands, she said.
Those remarks, first reported in The Post on Monday, focused renewed attention on her mission to create a dual-language Arabic school for grades 6 through 12. Critics say Khalil Gibran International Academy, which would be located in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, will isolate Muslim students.
“I think she felt that she has become the focus of, rather than having the school focus, and so today she submitted her resignation, which is nice of her to do and I appreciate her service,” Mayor Bloomberg said yesterday on his radio show.
Almontaser will remain on the Department of Education payroll and be reassigned to a position not connected with the academy.
“I became convinced yesterday that this week’s headlines were endangering the viability of Khalil Gibran International Academy, even though I apologized,” Almontaser said in a statement. “I will not allow the recent outcry to undermine these possibilities for the children of our city.”
She was to make $120,197 as principal.
The Department of Education said it remains committed to opening the school, and is searching for a new principal.
Numerous elected officials, citizens and advocacy groups said Almontaser’s comments, made in a city already in the cross hairs of Islamic terrorists, raised doubts that she could handle the sensitivity of managing an Arab-themed school.
“We had a conversation, and she came to the conclusion that her presence, given that she’d become a lightning rod, could destabilize the school and handicap it,” said David Cantor, a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
“We welcome and respect her decision to resign,” said Joel Levy, the New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We think the basic concept [of the school] is a good one. A lot of legitimate concerns were raised, and we hope and believe the Department of Education is addressing them.”
He added that teaching more Americans to speak Arabic is a “national security issue.”
Almontaser did not return calls for comment yesterday.
Members of Asian Women Active in Arts and Media, the group that created the T-shirts, declined to comment when The Post visited its headquarters on Third Avenue in Brooklyn. At the time of the visit, more than a dozen young women were watching an Almontaser lecture on a DVD.
The group shares space with the Saba Association of Yemeni-Americans, where Almontaser acts a spokeswoman and sits on the board of directors.
Despite Almontaser’s years of experience working in media and as a spokeswoman for the Arab community, Bloomberg said she simply misspoke about the tees.
“She’s certainly not a terrorist. She really does care . . . She’s not all that media savvy, maybe, and she tried to explain a word rather than just condemn,” he said.
Almontaser’s ouster did not mollify the school’s harshest critics. “This madrassa [Islamic school] needs to be stopped right now and be investigated,” said Hope Winters, a Manhattan mom with the group Stop the Madrassa. The group first brought the “Intifada NYC” T-shirts to the public’s attention.
“The fact that she is gone doesn’t mean anything at all. All the people behind her are still there,” she said.
Additional reporting by Kaili McDonnough, Tim Perone and Jeremy Olshan