BY ELIZABETH GREEN – Staff Reporter of the Sun
January 31, 2008
A dispute over the city’s new Arabic-language public school escalated this morning, when a press conference on the steps of City Hall brought supporters and opponents of the school face to face.
The school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, has drawn passionate protest and support since its creation last year, all centered on the school’s mission to teach Arabic language and culture alongside a traditional American curriculum.
This morning, opponents of Khalil Gibran said the school is “in chaos” and that it is at risk of becoming a mouthpiece for violent radical Islamic ideology.
The press conference soon turned into a commotion of shouting matches when supporters of the school, who came with cameras and a press release of their own, began firing questions at the opponents and accusing them of bigotry.
“Did we invite you here?” a leader of the group opposing the school, Stuart Kaufman, asked supporters.
Moments later, a cofounder of the Center for Immigrant Families and a supporter of the school, Donna Nevel, ran after a member of the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, as he left the press conference.
“As a Jew to another Jew, you should be ashamed of yourself,” Ms. Nevel said to Mr. Wiesenfeld, a trustee of the City University of New York.
Mr. Wiesenfeld had said minutes earlier that Khalil Gibran represents a disturbing national trend of Arab Americans failing to assimilate into American culture, a trend that he said mirrors what is happening in Europe.
“That means, do you want a situation where a triumphalist ideology conceals itself within a school? You don’t know the curriculum. You don’t know what’s going on. You’re paying for it,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “It’s no different from cab drivers in Minnesota who refuse to pick up passengers bearing liquor. It’s no different from the special provision of Islamic footbaths in universities.”
Supporters of Khalil Gibran acknowledged that the school is struggling with facilities that make teaching difficult and a student body that has not met expectations. They had hoped for half of students to be Arab American, but just a very small number are.
But they said the school is an important resource for Arab American students and others who would like to learn about Arabic language and culture.
The older sister of a Khalil Gibran student, Fatin Jarara, said she is glad the school exists for the sake of her sister and other recent immigrants. “They don’t really get the proper support” in other public schools, Ms. Jarara said.
She said she is also disappointed that the school is scaling back its Arabic lessons, to just three 45-minute sessions a week, beginning February 1. She said the only cultural education happens after school, when students listen to Middle Eastern music.