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.”
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 ( and Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (

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.


  1. Please come out to support the students, families, and faculty/staff of Khalil Gibran International Academy.

    Also, PLEASE note & RESPECT the GUIDELINES at the bottom of this message- -

    Announcing a silent vigil to support the children, parents, teachers and administration of the Khalil Gibran International Academy.

    Tuesday, September 4, 2007, at the Academy, 345 Dean Street, near 3rd Avenue , Brooklyn.
    Gather at 7:30 am for breakfast at the welcome table, silent witness at 8:00 am .

    We welcome all those who can support the statement and the guidelines below.


    We are Brooklynites who stand in silence today to support the opening of the Khalil Gibran International Academy , its staff, teachers, parents and children. We hope that it will grow and thrive.

    We are Brooklynites of different races, many ethnic and national backgrounds, and several religious affiliations who believe that there is room in our public schools system for a school that teaches Arabic language and culture along with math, English and social studies and that it can remain fully public while doing so.

    We believe there is a need in our complex world for students of all backgrounds to prepare to live in and lead their communities, states and our country, and that languages such as Chinese, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic will be crucial to that preparation. As there are schools and programs that include the teaching of Chinese and Hispanic language and culture, so now there is one that teaches Arabic language and culture.

    This is in keeping with the most admirable feature of Brooklyn cultural life: its genuine celebration of diversity that serves as a model for the worldwide human family. It is important that, beginning with our children, we teach and remind each other that we are all sisters and brothers, that we can teach and learn from each other, that each culture and faith tradition has its own integral beauty.

    We are saddened that the complex and often violent world in which we live has intruded on the development of this school in a way that has created tensions rather than healing them. Brooklyn has always been a place of many cultures living side by side in relative calm. Sometimes the calm is shattered. We hope in this case it can be healed quickly so that the children for whom the school has been created, and their parents, can go about the business of learning, their and our primary concern.

    We are deeply distressed at the way certain media have distorted the story of this school’s development and have relentlessly attacked its director to the point of resignation. Because we believe certain media are incapable of reporting on this school fairly, we stand in silence, offering this statement only.

    (This statement was drafted by Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, Carol Horwitz and Rev. Tom Martinez, organizers affiliated with Brooklyn’s annual Children of Abraham Peace Walk).


    1) We are quiet. Little sound, and no amplified sound
    2) We have a statement to hand out, but don’t otherwise speak to the media - or have one designated speaker only
    3) We have one big sign and no other banners from other organizations
    5) No angry statements re the mayor, chancellor, UFT pres
    6) No talk about intifada, Israel, the occupation et al

  2. Who cares about this school? This and all the other small schools are draining the larger schools of precious resources!!!! They are costly to run (one principal for sixty students?????) and they divert precious attention away from the bigger problems we (staff and students) face.

    The erosion of seniority rights, the ATR situation and class sizes that are way too large (as well as the DOE's reclassification of SI-7 students to MIS2 status) are much more important issues.

  3. Forget the school for a second. All the issues you raise are the result of policies of BloomKlein and the enabler Weingarten. These 3 control the entire PR apparatus the public sees plus UFT members get a triple dose from Unity Caucus.

    The only hope is to create pressure from underneath by exposing all these forces arrayed against teachers. What was done to Almontaser with the aid of the UFT is an indication of how people are treated all over the place. Playing politics over education.

    Weingarten's action in playing politics over functioning in a principled way is just the way the UFT operates in relation to all the issues you mention - "erosion of seniority rights, the ATR situation and class sizes that are way too large (as well as the DOE's reclassification of SI-7 students to MIS2 status".

    In their actions, the UFT leadership has agreed with the BloomKlein argument that seniority was the problem. Or they just played politics to let themselves be bought off for money - not a bribe, though I believe there's a lot more of that going on than people imagine -- teacher center jobs totally controlled by the UFT -- hundreds of them -- but time for money stuff.


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