Cultural, Religious Learning Comes Under Fire

An Arabic culture-based school in New York is under fire, along with a Hebrew-based school in Florida. Noah Feldman, of the New York Times, discusses the controversy along with Rabbi Aryeh Spero, President of Caucus for America.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary, in for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: portraits of war. Two wounded Army veterans share their stories of survival.

But first, the volatile clash of culture, religion and politics in public schools.

In Brooklyn, New York, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic language and culture school, has been met with threats and protesters who charged that it will be teaching Islam, violating the separation of church and state.

And in Hollywood, Florida, the Ben Gamla Charter School, which organizers say would teach Hebrew but not Judaism, has sparked similar concerns.

The controversy surrounding both schools raises the question about the proper role of public education.

With us to talk about all this are Rabbi Aryeh Spero. He is the president of Caucus for America, which promotes historic American culture and civilization. He joins us from our New York bureau. And Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, he joins us by phone from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Welcome to both of you.

Rabbi ARYEH SPERO (President, Caucus for America): Indeed.

Dr. NOAH FELDMAN (Professor of Law, Harvard University): A pleasure.

NEARY: Prof. Feldman, let's first talk about the school. I wonder if you can explain to us the idea behind the Khalil Gibran Academy. What would the New York City school system be hoping to accomplish by opening this kind of school?

Dr. FELDMAN: The school system itself has been relatively quiet. But if you look at the proposals made by the school to the school system, they specify really two goals. One goal is enhancing the identity and self-confidence and pride of the Arab-American community. And the second is enhancing knowledge of the Arabic language and of Arab civilization for all New Yorkers on the view - the very reasonable view that now more than ever, we need to have people who speak Arabic and a good understanding of the Middle East and of Middle Eastern cultures.

And that, I think, is perfectly permissible from a constitutional perspective. Where things get a little bit complicated is where one raises the question of whether it can - one can teach Arabic and Arab civilization without bringing Islam into the picture.

NEARY: And is that possible, in your opinion?

Dr. FELDMAN: It's possible, but it would be educationally questionable, I think, to try to teach Arab civilization or the Arabic language without educating the students about Islam. I mean, the two are so deeply intertwined that it would border on being misleading, I think. There's nothing wrong, again, with teaching religion as a sort of academic subject in the public schools. But it's very problematic and almost certainly unconstitutional to teach religion as a set of faiths to be believed.

NEARY: Rabbi Spero, is this the basis of your objection to the school, the fact that Islam might be taught there as a belief system, not just as an academic subject?

Rabbi SPERO: That's the major objection. Our tax dollars, public schools should not be used, of course, to teach any particular religion. That's a no-brainer here in America. We don't do it for the Catholics or the Christian Protestants or the Jewish community. Any ethnic or religious community that wants to teach its children its faith and its heritage is free to do so from its own private funds.

My concern, though, goes beyond that, and that has to do with historically the public schools were used to teach children from all different areas of the country who came here to live, people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, what it is to be an American, and to shape a common identity. And that was one of the great calls of the public schools. And I think that the public schools are veering off from their core mission when they start to fragment themselves and say, well, this school is to teach Islam and this school is to teach Judaism. That's going to vulcanize the country. And that's not what the public schools are supposed to do.

NEARY: Prof. Feldman, do you accept that point? I mean, do you think that that's a point well taken, that certainly it's a certain point in the nation's history, the public school system was set up to teach American values? And has that mission changed?

Dr. FELDMAN: The early history of the public school system does support that interpretation. The earliest public schools in this country, in the beginning of the 19th century, were certainly designed to make American citizens members of our republic.

But we should be very clear in remembering there was also a bit of a negative side to this way of seeing the world. Often, it was believed that Catholic immigrants were not likely to be good material for American citizenship unless they got a rigorous and, indeed, quasi-Protestant public school education.

Today, however, especially in the last 25 years, there are other theories about what our public schools should be doing. And without embracing one view or the other view, I think it's fair to say that there are many people who believe that our schools should teach a much more multicultural curriculum.

And according to that view, it's not that there's a single American culture that can be taught through a single American curriculum. It's that what makes us American is precisely the range of different backgrounds and ideas and histories that make up the very diverse people of what we have, in fact, become.

And in some sense, the Gibran Academy presents itself as just another step in what in New York City, for example, is already a very well-developed multi-cultural curriculum, with schools teaching many different languages and with schools focusing on many different cultural backgrounds.

NEARY: Is their support in New York City for this kind of school?

Dr. FELDMAN: The school's chancellor in New York City was behind this from the very beginning. This is a product of New York City's Department of Education.

NEARY: Prof. Feldman, you've written about the Ben Gamla Charter School in Florida, which is setting out to teach Hebrew, also saying without teaching religion. But in an article in The New York Times, you say that's going to be pretty hard to do as well. Do you think…

Prof. FELDMAN: I see the…

NEARY: …these two schools are comparable, or…

Dr. FELDMAN: I see the two schools as doing essentially the same thing. The idea that one can teach Hebrew language and Jewish culture without teaching Jewish religion as a set of beliefs to be embraced seems to me bordering on the absurd. Again, it's not that it's impossible to teach Hebrew and Jewish culture without any religion.

In fact, early Zionism tried to do exactly that. They tried to take God out of Judaism all together. It's that that's not a very successful undertaking. And practically speaking, the school in Florida, the Ben Gamla Academy, looks very much like multi-denominational Jewish community schools that have started all over the United States, which are designed to teach Judaism in a way that would certainly violate the constitution if it were done with state funds.

NEARY: And just to clarify, it is a charter school, so it is a public school. Correct? The Ben Gamla School?

Dr.. FELDMAN: Correct. It's a school funded by public funds.

NEARY: Rabbi Spero, would you equally object to the Ben Gamla School for the same reasons that Prof. Feldman laid out?

Rabbi SPERO: Yeah. I have a problem with the Ben Gamla School, because being acquainted with Hebrew literature, the culture of Judaism is very much tied to its religion. And I don't think it is the purpose of the public school system to be a vehicle to teach any particular religion.

Now, if there's a comparative religion course, that's no problem. Children should be aware of the different religions in this country and indeed around the world. But to focus simply on one religion - as is the case in Florida with the Ben Gamla School and here in Brooklyn with the Islamic school - I do have a problem with that, both in Florida and here in New York.

NEARY: If you're just joining us, I'm Lynn Neary, in for Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE. I'm speaking with Rabbi Aryeh Spero and Dr. Noah Feldman about cultural schools and the possible conflicts between church and state.

The principal of the Khalil Gibran School resigned last week because of the controversy, the negative backlash. Do you think this establish as a dangerous precedent, and what do you think should happen with this school? Do you think the school should just be shut down? Rabbi?

Rabbi SPERO: Well, the principal resigned for good reason. It seemed like she had a political agenda, and you don't want someone being a principal of a school that had this - from beginning, this hostility to America, things that were racist. I read where she talked about the United States being a terrorist country and a racist country.

And, of course, there was that hold incident about the Intifada New York City t-shirt. An Intifada is the taking up of arms by the Muslim community as almost part of a mini-jihad against a community that they are angry with. For example, Intifada in Israel. The principal, she was not the right person and she was very alarming to many of us in this city about what this school was going to be.

NEARY: Professor Feldman, as I hear Rabbi Spero talk about the principal and his belief that she really was very political in her belief, that we're talking about more here, perhaps, than just religion and the freedom to teach about religion within the context of a culture. This is really about politics, it sounds to me.

Prof. FELDMAN: There's no question that much of the opposition to the Gibran school actually was not grounded and constitutional concerns of the kind that I was expressing earlier, but was, in fact, grounded and political opposition to the very idea that there will be a school teaching Arab culture or Arab-American culture in a way that valued it.

And I think that's very unfortunate, because as I mentioned, New York City has a range of public schools - or academies, they're called - advocating and supporting all kinds of different cultural sets of ideals and values. And in that context, there's absolutely no reason why there shouldn't be one for Arab-Americans the same way there might be, say, for Americans of Caribbean origin, as, just to give one of the examples of schools that's, in fact, out there.

NEARY: Do you think that this is a school that's going to survive, and should it survive?

Prof. FELDMAN: From a constitutional standpoint, we first need to see how they're actually teaching. And if religion is coming into the subject matter, then I think the school really probably can't sustain separation of church and state principle that we have - has to be imposed upon it from a standard constitutional perspective.

From a policy perspective, though, if it's satisfied that constitutional concern, I can see nothing wrong with it. And I would think it was unfortunate if the school ceased to exist simply because of opposition to the idea that there might be school there was Arab, or in some indirect sense, connected to the Muslim community. And I think if it doesn't survive on those grounds, it will actually be a setback for relations between Muslim-Americans and other Americans - and Arab-Americans, more generally.

NEARY: Rabbi Spero?

Rabbi SPERO: I don't think it's good to segregate people based on their ethnicity into particular buildings, in particular neighborhoods and say you're going to a Islamic school or to a Jewish school and to do so with public funds. And the public school system could be multicultural with the understanding, though, that after everything is said and done, we have a unique, American culture that binds us all, and that's the social glue that keeps us together as a nation.

NEARY: Rabbi Aryeh Spero is president of Caucus for America, which promotes historic American culture and civilization. And we were also joined by Noah Feldman. He's a law professor at Harvard University. He joined us by phone from his home. And I should mention that we tried reaching the principal of the school, Debbie Almontaser, but we were unsuccessful. Thanks to both of you, Rabbi Spero and Professor Feldman. Thanks for being with us.

Rabbi SPERO: Indeed.

Prof. FELDMAN: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: We've been talking about the debate over the intersection of religion and education in two American public schools. Now, we'd like to hear from you. What do you think about having your tax dollar support schools like the Khalil Gibran Academy or the Ben Gamla Charter School? To express your views about this or any of our other programs, visit our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522.

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