August 28, 2007

Separate but unequal

I'm not sure that anyone would have ever associated Khalil Gibran with Ben Gamla. But in recent news stories these two symbols have been brought together. Each has a school named after him that is now in the news.

Khalil Gibran was a Christian-Lebanese poet whose name is used to demonstrate the non-sectarian nature of the Arab language charter school that bears his name and Ben Gamla was a historical figure who advocated for Jewish education for all Jewish children.

There isn't a whole lot of a difference between the competing concepts of a charter school in New York with an Arabic curriculum and a charter school in Florida featuring a Hebrew curriculum. On the surface the problem facing either school should be the same.

On one hand since both schools received public funding, does each avoid the problem of advocating for a religion? On the other hand, for its advocates, is either capable of fulfilling its mission given the government guidelines for what it may or may not teach.

The better known of the two schools, the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA) in Brooklyn has been the subject of quite a bit of controversy. Back in May the NY Times reported Plan for Arabic School in Brookly Spurs Protests. The Times in its article outlines two objections to the school.

One was that it was planned to share space with an existing school.

The first sign of discontent came from the parents of P.S. 282, where the school was supposed to share space. They staged protests and besieged Mr. Klein’s office with e-mail messages this winter and spring.

Their litany of complaints was long: They objected to sharing space with another school, particularly with middle and high school students who they said could put their elementary school children in danger. They predicted that class sizes at P.S. 282, now comfortably small, would increase close to capacity. And they were indignant when told that they would have to sacrifice space they used for activities like computer instruction and chess.

The other group opposing the school, opposed it on ideological grounds.

A Web site called Militant Islam Monitor recently posted side-by-side photographs of Ms. Almontaser wearing different types of headscarves, suggesting that she had changed her appearance to disguise her “Islamist agenda.”

In The New York Sun, a column by Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum, a conservative research center that says its goal is to promote American interests in the region, declared that “A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn,” contending that the school would generate problems and promote an “Islamic outlook.”

Mr. Pipes, who lives in Philadelphia, said in a telephone interview, “What you find is that the materials that are included in an Arabic curriculum have a natural tendency to promote Islam.”

Notice, of course, that the opposition comes from a "conservative." Pipes's column is more involved than the news article can convey.

Come September, an Arabic-language public secondary school is slated to open its doors in Brooklyn. The New York City Department of Education says the Khalil Gibran International Academy, serving grades six through 12, will boast a "multicultural curriculum and intensive Arabic language instruction."

This appears to be a marvelous idea, for New York and the country need native-born Arabic speakers. They have a role in the military, diplomacy, intelligence, the courts, the press, the academy, and many other institutions — and teaching languages to the young is the ideal route to polyglotism. As someone who spent years learning Arabic, I am enthusiastic in principle about the idea of this school, one of the first of its kind in America.

In practice, however, I strongly oppose the KGIA and predict that its establishment will generate serious problems. I say this because Arabic-language instruction is inevitably laden with pan-Arabist and Islamist baggage.

Pipes goes on to list specific examples of what Arab instruction generally involves and, citing other sources, shows that the principal-designate, despite the Times's description of her as a "moderate," held rather radical views.

If there's a weakness to Pipes's objection to the Khalil Gibran academy, it's that he doesn't show that the indoctrination that is often a part of Arabic instruction, would necessarily be a part of of the curriculum at KGIA. He does suggest very strongly that the indoctrination is a regular part of Arabic instruction and that one wouldn't be surprised to see it at KGIA.

The principal designate, Debbie Almontaser, has since resigned under pressure, when she defended T-shirts that had the word intifada on them.

More recently the Times started reporting on the Ben Gamla school in Florida. In Hebrew Charter School Spurs Debate in Florida the Times reports

The new public school at 2620 Hollywood Boulevard stands out despite its plain gray facade. Called the Ben Gamla Charter School, it is run by an Orthodox rabbi, serves kosher lunches and concentrates on teaching Hebrew.

About 400 students started classes at Ben Gamla this week amid caustic debate over whether a public school can teach Hebrew without touching Judaism and the unconstitutional side of the church-state divide. The conflict intensified Wednesday, when the Broward County School Board ordered Ben Gamla to suspend Hebrew lessons because its curriculum — the third proposed by the school — referred to a Web site that mentioned religion.

Opponents say that it is impossible to teach Hebrew — and aspects of Jewish culture — outside a religious context, and that Ben Gamla, billed as the nation’s first Hebrew-English charter school, violates one of its paramount legal and political boundaries.

Note that there is now adjective modifying "opponents." Thus the opponents of the Ben Gamla school are presented as untouched by any ideological biases. This is an presumption that is not extended to opponents of KGIA.

The Ben Gamla school now has had two curricula rejected by the Broward County school board, despite the efforts of its staff.

Rabbi Siegel said the school was proceeding with such extreme caution that even a neutral mention of religion was unlikely. The sign outside Ben Gamla was going to include a Hebrew phrase for “welcome,” Rabbi Siegel said, but because the literal translation is “blessed are those who come,” he decided against it.

“Even basic things, like if there was a page that had a picture of a shofar, I pulled it out,” Rabbi Siegel said, referring to the ram’s horn used in High Holy Day services. “We went so far overboard, it’s crazy.”

The school board rejected Ben Gamla’s first two Hebrew curriculum proposals after finding they included religious references. The second, which relied on a textbook titled “Ha-Yesod,” asked students to translate phrases like “Our Holy Torah is dear to us” and “Man is redeemed from his sins through repentance.”

Until a new curriculum is approved the school may not teach any Hebrew.

I suspect that however difficult it is to find Hebrew instruction that doesn't, in some way, reference Judaism, it's probably even more difficult to separate Islam from an Arabic curriculum.

It seems unlikely that either school will be able to divorce itself from the religious underpinnings of the language being featured. And yet the NY Times goes out of its way to promote the Khalil Gibran International Academy and takes a more disinterested approach towards the Ben Gamla school.

1) As mentioned above the critics of the Ben Gamla are not described in any way.

2) The ACLU is reported interested in possibly bringing a lawsuit against the Ben Gamla school but not against KGIA. Why not? The Times doesn't explain.

3) The article about Ben Gamla shows that the administrator is making an effort to remove religious meaning from his school's curriculum. However Ms. Almontaser apparently has an interest in promoting an agenda in her school. I didn't read that at all in the NY Times article. It was Daniel Pipes who quoted an AP article that she had a an agenda.

An Associated Press report paraphrases her saying that "the school won't shy away from sensitive topics such as colonialism and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis," and she notes that the school will "incorporate the Arabic language and Islamic culture." Islamic culture? Not what was advertised — but imbuing pan-Arabism and anti-Zionism, proselytizing for Islam, and promoting Islamist sympathies will predictably make up the school's true curriculum.

While the New York Times reports on the difficulties facing each school, it seems to be advocating for the Khalil Gibran International Academy and simply reporting the controversy over the Ben Gamla school. It's hard not to get the feeling that in the former case the Times feels the need to balance out bad impressions but not in the latter case. It's reporting like that, that makes me feel that the KGIA does have something to hide and that we won't get the full story from the NY Times.

In the end both schools have similar challenges and from what we've seen, the Ben Gamla school will get more oversight from official sources (government, media) and the Khlalil Gibran school will get its oversight from the citizenry and get a free pass from officialdom. It shouldn't be that way.

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Posted by SoccerDad at August 28, 2007 6:07 AM
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