The school is named after a Lebanese Christian poet who wrote his best work while living in New York, but that has not stopped critics – calling themselves the Stop the Madrassa coalition – who say the school will promote a radical “Islamist agenda”.
‘Blueprint for extremism’
Dov Hikind, a state assemblyman, said the school’s children could be “indoctrinated” and warned that the “establishment of an Arab school is a misguided and dangerous idea”.
“It will not, as suggested, be a hope for peace; it is a blueprint for anti-Israel and anti-US extremism,” he said, charging that the school has been endorsed by “radical” groups.
Supporters of the school say such comments are racist.
“Unless we all send a clear message that racist comments associating Arabic language and culture with terrorism will not be tolerated, we will continue to hear them again and again,” the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee said this week.
The school will not teach Islam and the interim principal, Danielle Salzberg, is Jewish. So far about 45 have signed up for the first semester and the majority of them are not of Arabic decent.
Deborah Howard, who was part of the team that designed the curriculum, said: “It’s a public school – we all know that public school can’t be faith based. There’s nothing about it that has to do with Islam.
“It’s Arabs, Arab culture, culture of the Middle East. The focus is dual language; the goal is that every child graduates fluent in Arabic.
The Stop the Madrassa coalition – backed by anti-immigration and pro-Iraq war groups – has been making trouble for the school in the right-wing press.
Debbie Almontaser, the founder and originally designated principal of the school, was attacked for speaking out against US policy in the Middle East, and finally resigned for failing to condemn the use of the highly charged word “intifada” on a T-shirt.
Critics say that “intifada” is a political statement supporting the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, but supporters say the word was simply meant in literal sense of “shaking off”.
Community activists of all faiths and races are voicing their support for the school.
Rabbi Michael Feinberg of the Greater NY Labour and Religion Coalition, said: “It represents a vision of tolerance of community understanding – that’s what NY is about, should be about – what the academy is based on.”
Mona Eldahry of Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media, said: “What’s happened with this situation is a great deal of misinformation – about the school, Debbie, and Arab organisations in our community.
Proponents say that is exactly why a school promoting Arab cultural understanding is needed in New York.