Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

My Photo
Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

August 19, 2007


Last February, the NYC Department of Education announced the opening for this fall of the Kahil Gibron International Academy, a middle school in the city public school system, to be devoted to the Arabic language and culture. In Larchmont, NY where I grew up, I attended public schools. A daily trip to St. Augustine’s Parochial School was too far to travel for the Byrne siblings. We were happy with our educational experience at The Murray Avenue School. The parochial school was supported by church funds contributed by parishioners, including the Byrne family. Jewish families in Larchmont maintained local yeshivas, at their own expense, to transmit Jewish faith and culture to their children

In later years, with the loss of the nuns as teachers and other increased expenses, St. Augustine's School was forced to close. About the same time, Larchmont became a popular bedroom community for French diplomatic and business families. Desirous that their children to be kept in touch with their native language and culture, they rented the St. Augustine’s school building and established a thriving school. All the costs were met by the local French community.

Many taxpayers and educators have objected to the NYC public school system singling out the Arabic community, where Islamic culture, religion, and politics are so intertwined, for this preferential treatment. The Islamic faith is sharply divided into many factions, ranging from the peaceful to the jihadists. Could bringing together students from the Muslim “ummah” sharpen the dividing lines? Could not such a concentration of Arabic students inevitably produce some radical types who would exert influence on others, as has occurred in England and elsewhere? If this school taught the American notion of the equality of women, could Muslim devotees bring civil suit that tenets of their Islamic faith and culture were being contravened? It has long been the philosophy of public school advocates that there is a salutary effect in educating children together, who are from different ethnic, religious, and social groups. The students come to respect each other and their cultural and religious backgrounds, while retaining their own personal and group identities. Given our perceptions of the Muslim presence around the world with its own internal tensions and with the sharp differences between Muslim and western jurisprudence, would not the full public school experience be just what is needed to facilitate the accommodation of these students to the new receiving culture?

One would expect neuralgic points to occur as American and Arabic cultures and religions come together. But not as quickly as happened when the principal of the Kahil Gibron School, Ms. Debbie Almontaser, endorsed a T shirt, “Intifada NYC” emblazoned on its front. That the notion of “Intifada”, the name of the armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinian arabs be somehow celebrated within our city showed a remarkable insensitivity on the part of the principal and an indication of future tensions that might well lie ahead. Ms.Almontaser was quickly forced to resign. She has been replaced by Jewish Ms. Danielle Salzberg, who does not understand Arabic.

The Kahil Gibron School (interestingly Gibron was a Maronite Christian) would best be opened and supported by private sources, not by NY City taxpayers. Arabic might well be introduced as a curriculum item in the city’s public schools. Those schools would continue to carry on their role of bringing people together without segregation. Our American concept and experience of church-state separation is properly maintained. Immersion in it thus becomes a teaching tool to those from cultures that unite religious faith and politics.