New York City's education department is turning to a Jewish woman who belongs to an Upper West Side synagogue to lead an Arabic-language public school that critics have portrayed as a terrorist-friendly "madrassa" in the making.
Khalil Gibran International Academy, which is scheduled to open to a few dozen students for the first time next month, had its founding principal, Dhaba "Debbie" Almontaser, resign on Friday after a flap over her response to a T-shirt promoting an "intifada," or uprising, in New York. Ms. Almontaser's replacement will be Danielle Salzberg, who does not speak Arabic, but grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and belongs to a Manhattan synagogue, her father, Michael Salzberg, told The New York Sun yesterday.
Ms. Salzberg will serve as Khalil Gibran's acting principal while the city wages an aggressive search to find a permanent replacement for Ms. Almontaser, who speaks fluent Arabic, and is a practicing Muslim.
In a resignation letter sent to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Ms. Almontaser said she was stepping down for the good of her school. "Unfortunately, a small group of highly misguided individuals has launched a relentless attack on me because of my religion," she wrote. "I have grown increasingly concerned that these few outsiders will disrupt the community of learning when the Academy opens its doors on September 4th."
Critics, including representatives from Jewish groups that had defended her school from concerns that it might promote a violent political ideology, condemned comments Ms. Almontaser made to the New York Post interpreting T-shirts that said "Intifada NYC" as "an opportunity for girls to express that they are part of New York City society Ö and shaking off oppression."
Ms. Almontaser issued an apology the day the story appeared, but the mea culpa did not stem plans for a rally calling for her resignation, nor did it fend off a condemnation from the powerful president of the city teachers union, Randi Weingarten.
The T-shirts were first disclosed on the Web site of a group that has been waging a campaign to close Khalil Gibran, the Stop the Madrassa Coalition, whose members discovered them on sale at an Arab cultural fair in Brooklyn. The shirts were designed by an art group, Arab Women Active in Art and Media, which shares office space with a Yemeni association Ms. Almontaser advises.
The interim principal, Ms. Salzberg, seemed apprehensive when the Department of Education asked her to run Khalil Gibran temporarily, said her father, who said he spoke to her about the offer over the weekend. "It's a controversial thing, it's public," Mr. Salzberg said. "I'm not sure that exposure is good for anyone."
But he said he is confident his daughter will deal well under pressure. For one thing, positive comments about intifada are unlikely, he said. "I don't think she'll get herself into that sort of bind," he said.
Mr. Salzberg added that his daughter's politics are far more liberal than his, noting that he was not surprised to learn that she had signed a petition written by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
Ms. Salzberg's position at Khalil Gibran will return her to the Department of Education, where she worked for 11 years, first as an English teacher and later as an assistant principal at Millennium High School in TriBeCa, another of the city's recently created small schools. She moved from Millennium to the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools, where she worked in a division that helps found new schools, including Khalil Gibran.
Forty-four sixth-graders are enrolled at Khalil Gibran, which is planned to eventually grow to serve grades 6 through 12. Six of the students are native Arabic speakers and many are black. Of the five teachers and two staff members who will assist Ms. Salzberg, two speak fluent Arabic, Department of Education spokesmen have said.
Ms. Salzberg, whose father said she attended Columbia Teachers College after getting a bachelor's at New York University, could not be reached for comment yesterday.