At last, Eid is on New York’s public holiday calendar

For nearly a decade, Muslim activists have been urging the city to add Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha to the list of public holidays. This year they will get their wish, writes Fran Hawthorne

Eid celebrations in Dubai. Soon, New York City school children will have a public holiday for the Muslim festival. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National)
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With 1.1 million students of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, who speak more than a dozen languages, New York City closes its public schools for all sorts of cultural holidays. These include US government holidays important to African-Americans (Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday) and Italian-Americans (Columbus Day), and days that are holy to Catholics (Good Friday) and Jews (Yom Kippur).

For nearly a decade, Muslim activists have been urging the city to add Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha to the list of public holidays. This year they will get their wish.

What may be more surprising than the fact that the effort succeeded in the city that was the focus of the 9/11 attacks, is there has been virtually no public protest.

The Arab American Association of New York, a social services and advocacy organisation, got some negative feedback on social media. But the comment “has been mostly supportive”, said Zeinab Khalil, the association’s lead organiser.

Negative commentary showed up sporadically in the US media. Stephen Prothero, a Boston University professor of religion, wrote an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal praising the concept of honouring diverse cultures but questioning just how many religious holidays could be shaved off the school calendar “without subtracting from the core mission of public schools”.

This was why former mayor Michael Bloomberg had resisted pressure to add both the Muslim festivals and the Asian lunar new year to the list of holidays. Muslims constitute an estimated 10 per cent of New York City’s public school population and Asians, 16 per cent.

There was some protest online and on the opinion pages of small newspapers, and some lawyers, including a former general counsel for the city’s board of education, said that the law may violate the US First Amendment’s guarantee of the separation of church and state unless New York can prove a non-religious justification for the closings.

However, the vast majority of the public comments in the week after the March 4 announcement pretty much echoed the words of New York’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio. He said the change would “reflect the strength and diversity of our city”.

About six smaller school districts in the US have also added the Eid holidays to their calendar with little noticeable opposition. But when Montgomery county in Maryland tried to do so last autumn, the protests were so forceful that the school board ended up eliminating references to all religious holidays, including Christmas.

New York City’s calm reaction to the new holidays stands in sharp contrast to the 2010 outcry, when a developer tried to build a 15-storey Muslim cultural centre near the site of the September 11 attacks. Those plans were drastically scaled back.

Why aren’t famously outspoken New Yorkers speaking out more against the school change? A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Education said she couldn’t comment on why people were not reacting, even as she noted that the cultural centre brouhaha was some years ago. Perhaps, the unspoken implication is that trauma over the terrorist attacks has paled over time.

Ms Khalil of the Arab American Association suggests the additional holidays are not “about a symbolic building” just blocks away from the September 11 site but a change that “has a practical impact on thousands of students”.

Indeed, the biggest potential objections could be practical, not political. Working parents who already scramble to find childcare during school holidays that are not days off in their workplace, will now have to worry about two more days. But education department officials say that for the next three years Eid Al Fitr will occur during summer, when school is not in session.

Mayor de Blasio’s son Dante will graduate from a New York City public high school this June, thus sparing his parents that quandary next year.

Fran Hawthorne is a US-based writer who covers business, ­finance and social policy­