Wednesday, April 30, 2008

School Daze

A naive part of me wants to think of the US as a chill-out zone for combatants in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. That same part wants to believe that the US can be a pluralistic society where the politics of identity are left behind for a struggle over economic justice. These thoughts/ hopes explain why a recent New York Times article especially depressing. It reviewed the controversy over the effort to establish a school in the New York City public school system that would offer instruction in Arabic to children of Arab and other ethnic descents. Despite the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the agreement of school system officials, the leadership (designated school principal) of a talented, moderate Arab woman, her partnership with a well regarded organization providing social services to Muslim communities in New York, and buy in from other ethnic groups, the effort quickly ran into opposition from elements of the Jewish community. These included "outside [New York] agitators," such as Daniel Pipes, head of Campus Watch, who also played a role in the attempt to deny tenure to Columbia University professor Nadia Abu al-Haj. They had questions and accusation, repeated in the tabloid press, about the school's would be principal and curriculum, textbooks, etc., based on the assumption that anything in Arabic would inevitably be sympathetic to jihadists and hostile to Israel. But support the designated principal Deborah Almontaser received from other Jewish group led some Arab-Americans to question her loyalty to them.

The shit really hit the fan when the opponents of the school wrongly linked Ms. Almontaser to an Arab-American that has used the slogan Intifada NYC. The New York Post then distorted Ms. Almontaser's comments about this slogan, so it appeared that she supported jihad in New York. The school system officials then disowned her and forced her to resign, by threatening to not open the school otherwise. The school opened, survived a rough first year, but attracted far fewer Arab-American students than anticipated. The Arab-American communities might have been estranged by having little input in the planning, by the interim principal being a Jewish woman who knows no Arabic, by the controversy, perhaps even by the school being named for poet Khalil Gibran, a Christian. Meanwhile, Ms. Almontaser is suing the school system for reinstatement as principal, a case she is unlikely to win.

This case, like several tenures battles in the past year, bespeaks the intense politicization of US education of all grades over Middle East issues. On one hand, it resembles the struggle over "intelligent design" with the Jewish vigilantes in the role of the anti-Darwinian evangelicals. On the other, it seems a throwback to the Cold War days, when people who tried to create institutions to accommodate pluralism were accused of being pawns of a international conspiracy to subvert the young. (One might remember Socrates was convicted and executed on that charge.) But there is also some resonance with the nasty Oceanside-Brownsville battles between the New York teachers' union and the local communities, power struggles that paraded under the banners of the "canon" and multi-culturalism.

Of course, Jewish groups being pissed about people saying bad things about Israel or good things about Arabs, Palestinians in particular, is nothing new. For decades, American Jewish leaders have been denying any Israeli responsibility for the flight of Palestinians in 1948 or the suffering of Palestinians in the occupied territories, notwithstanding the historical records and their research by Israel historians, e.g., Benny Morris. They have denounced, boycotted and blacklisted people and media that have said differently, because they are more concerned with current public relations than truth in the past. And for the past two or three decades they have been formidable. A difference in today's battles is people of little stature and no followings have organized the campaigns against the offending Arabs -- more facilitators than leaders. Their success testifies to the Internet's power to arouse people and lower the costs of their participation over a wide catchment.

But what motivates individual Jews to join these campaigns on the basis of meager, one-sided information, without almost no thought. First, because people think in stereotypes, Americans and especially New York Jews are likely to identify Arab-Americans as threats, linked to the perpetrators of 9/11 and those militants lobbing rockets into Israel. Second, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman suggests, some join these campaigns to prove they are good Jews. This points to a spiritual and educational poverty that many Jews in the US experience, their own guilt regarding about it and the belief that unquestioning support of Israel is a basis of Jewish identity. Third, these small battles give their participants opportunities to lead or, at least, to feel they can make a difference. They do not need money or arguments, but rather passion and a some resentment at having been shut out of decision making. For such reasons, politics around school boards, hiring and curricula have been the most passionate in the United States.

The anthropologist Levi-Strauss defined neurotic conflict as grievance looking for a target. I think the definition applies to most Middle East conflicts and their recent extensions in the United States.

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