Friday, August 31, 2007
How Weingarten Helped Undermine Almontaser
“I agree wholeheartedly with your editorial,” – Randi Weingarten letter to the NY Post
"...the campaign against Almontaser was a “high-tech lynching.” – Rabbi Michael Paley, scholar-in-residence at United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York
"If it was a lynching, my union did not string up the rope, but it was the UFT that kicked away the stool." - Steve Quester, UFT chapter leader
The Indypendent has printed an updated version "Teachers’ Union Undermines Arab School" of Steve Quester's piece published on this blog. Steve, a UFT chapter leader in Brooklyn, goes into more detail on the role Randi Weingarten played. I've gotten lots of response on this issue with people arguing back and forth as to whether a school such as the Khalil Gibran school should even exist, from rational points of view like those of Diane Ravitch, to the right wing calling the school a training ground for Bin Laden. (See Sam Freedman's recent column in the NY Times.) Then there were the usual anonymous personal attacks on Steve in comments on his original post.
People have assumed that because I published Steve's piece, I support the concept of the school. Actually, I have mixed feelings, probably leaning towards Ravitch's position. My interest lies in the way Bloomberg and Klein and Weingarten, the holy trio, functioned in this situation. While all 3 express support for the school (I hear Leo Casey on Edwize does all sorts of dances on the head of a pin to justify the UFT position) the results of their actions have undermined the school – sort of like that Republican Senator from Idaho explaining his actions.
Here are excerpts from Steve's latest piece:
Before Almontaster was ambushed by the New York Post, KGIA endured months of vitriolic attacks from right-wing websites like Stop the Madrassa, Militant Islam Monitor and Little Green Footballs.
Predictably, the Post, the New York Sun, Fox News and New York State Assembly Member Dov Hikind jumped eagerly into the fray.
The Post submitted questions in advance before the NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE) would agree to let them interview Almontaser. All of the questions were about KGIA. At the end of the interview, the reporter asked offhandedly what “intifada” means.
Almontaser, who is after all an educator, looked up the word in the dictionary, and translated it accurately: “shaking off.” The reporter then told Almontaser that the Yemeni-American organization on whose board she sits shares office space with Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM) and that AWAAM had produced a T-shirt with the words “Intifada NYC.” Almontaser, to her credit, refused to throw the girls from AWAAM under a bus, instead referring to their nonviolent struggle to shake off oppression in their own lives.
The Post quoted her as saying “I understand it is developing a negative connotation due to the uprising in the Palestinian-Israeli areas. I don’t believe the intention is to have any of that kind of [violence] in New York City. 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.”
On the same day the article appeared, Almontaser wrote in an e-mail to community supporters, “I was misrepresented and trapped by the reporter. Those were not my exact words, and the words I did use were taken out of context.” Later that day, she released a statement through the NYCDOE that read, “The word ‘intifada’ is completely inappropriate as a T-shirt slogan. I regret suggesting otherwise. By minimizing the word’s historical associations, I implied that I condone violence and threats of violence. That view is anathema to me.”
RANDI WEINGARTEN INTERVENES
On Aug. 7, the Post, without reference to Almontaser’s Aug. 6 statement of regret, ran an editorial asking, “What is she doing with the job in the first place?”
On Aug. 8, the Post published a letter from Randi Weingarten, president of my union, the United Federation of Teachers, in which she wrote, “I agree wholeheartedly with your editorial,” and, “While the city teachers’ union initially took an open-minded approach to this school, both parents and teachers have every right to be concerned about children attending a school run by someone who doesn’t instinctively denounce campaigns or ideas tied to violence.”
In her letter, Weingarten chose to ignore both Almontaser’s Aug. 6 statement and her proven record as a peacemaker. On Aug. 9 the Post quoted Weingarten saying, among other things, “maybe, ultimately, she should not be a principal.” On Aug. 10 Almontaser resigned, perhaps under pressure from Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and/or Mayor Bloomberg.
In her resignation letter, she wrote, “I have spent the past two decades of my life building bridges among people of all faiths — particularly among Muslims and Jews. Unfortunately, a small group of highly misguided individuals has launched a relentless attack on me because of my religion.”
Rabbi Michael Paley, scholar-in-residence at United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York (Paley’s daughter is in charge of enrollment at KGIA), told Jewish Week that the campaign against Almontaser was a “high-tech lynching.”
If it was a lynching, my union did not string up the rope, but it was the UFT that kicked away the stool. I’m at a loss to explain why my union, which continues to support KGIA, piled on when the attacks on the school’s principal were at their shrillest. The union leadership insists that we were acting on our deep commitment to peace and nonviolence, but that’s a strange excuse for joining in a transparently racist and Islamophobic attack. I suspect that Weingarten, sensing which way the wind was blowing on Aug. 7 and 8, decided to play to the basest instincts of some of her rank and file.
The membership of the UFT is middle class and majority white, and many are Jewish. Not all middle-class white Jews lend credence to the Almontaser witch hunt — I’m middle-class, white, and Jewish myself — but Weingarten was counting on many of her members being solidly behind the Post on this issue. She may be right. But I don’t think that she counted on the firestorm of criticism she was to endure after Almontaser’s resignation. Those of us in the UFT and outside of it, who are outraged at the attacks on Almontaser, are not going to just let this matter drop. We will continue to expose the racist consequences of Weingarten’s statements, so that the next time the right-wing media hit squads go after an educator, she’ll think twice before lending them her voice.
Steve Quester is a Brooklyn-based UFT Chapter leader and veteran early childhood educator. For more, see Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (jfrej.org) and Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (awaam.org).
The entire piece is posted on Norm's Notes. Also check out Meredith Kolodner's piece in The Chief also posted on Norm's Notes.