Arsonists set fire to a school in Jerusalem on Saturday night in a hate crime against the only early education institution in the city where Arabs and Jews learn together.
No one was hurt but this was an escalation of previous acts of hate against the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school for bilingual education, and one that struck a particularly personal note for me, as it is the school my three daughters attend. “Death to Arabs” had been scrawled on its walls on several previous occasions.
Students at the school responded to such a graffito three weeks ago by creating a banner saying “There is cooperation, love and friendship here between Arabs and Jews”. But on Saturday night, the hateful rejoinder to this hit home.
School officials said the assailants made a fire out of books and objects and badly damaged a classroom before firefighters put out the blaze. “There is no coexistence with cancer” and “Kahane was right” were scrawled in black, the latter slogan referring to Meir Kahane, the racist rabbi who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.
Many politicians condemned the attack on Sunday, with education minister Shai Piron terming it a “violent, criminal and despicable act done to undermine the foundations of Israeli democracy”. Justice minister Tzipi Livni, termed the school a “nature reserve” of dwindling coexistence in Israel.
The attack comes as tensions remain high after a wave of Palestinian attacks and amid a Palestinian perception that Israel is threatening Islam’s third holiest site, the al-Aqsa mosque, despite assurances by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel has no intention of altering the status quo.
Twelve days ago, two Palestinians armed with an axe, knives and a pistol attacked those attending a synagogue in the ultra-orthodox Har Nof area, killing four worshippers and a policeman.
Amid the maelstrom and bloodshed of past weeks, however, the Hand in Hand school has persisted as an oasis of mutual respect and coexistence.
Students and faculty are determined to keep it that way. Arab and Jewish students held up signs at the entrance to the school on Sunday morning saying: “We continue together without hate and without fear”, “Despite the pain, there is hope” and “Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies”.
Hagar Mizrachi, a student, said: “This is our home, it’s like they burned our home.” But she added: “Every act of racism unites us. They burned our building but they cannot burn our values.” An Arab classmate, who asked not to be named, added: “When you encounter an obstacle, it just makes you stronger. This strengthens us and makes us come together.”
But parents are worried and face a hard time telling their children they are safe when they themselves have doubts about this. Arab parents and children feel especially vulnerable because of the “Death to the Arabs” epithets. In June, Jewish extremists brutally murdered a 16-year-old Palestinian, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, in apparent revenge for the killing of three Israeli teens.
On Saturday night, my four-year-old, Talya, heard us talking about the fire, which was first thought to have been in her classroom. She grew anxious for her toys, thinking they had been burned. Seven-year-old Alona was only slightly less worried. “I want it to stop,” she said.
Ten-year-old Neta understood that the danger level had gone up. “I’m afraid to go by bus because people see the symbol of the school on my shirt and can do things to us,” she told me.
A friend of my wife asked her if it hadn’t been a mistake to choose the bilingual school. “No it’s the only place,” Maayan replied, though she too is worried about sending Neta on the bus.
The fear now is that things could escalate further, to a shooting or a tossing of a grenade at the kids as they play in the nearby park. Already children are sometimes afraid to say what school they attend.
We sent our children to Hand in Hand largely because we believe in its values of humanism and equality. Unfortunately, these concepts are currently under attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now intent on passing a law to strengthen the Jewish character of Israel that comes at the expense of the standing of Arab citizens and democracy.
In setting fire to the school, the assailants were targeting a rare place where equality is not just a slogan: classes are taught together in Hebrew and Arabic with a teacher for each language; the calendar is shared, with holidays of Judaism, Christianity and Islam being equal; history is taught with a dual-narrative approach that includes learning about the nakba, or Palestinian catastrophe that accompanied Israel’s establishment.
By contrast, a Netanyahu ally, Zeev Elkin, an influential Likud party MP, has proposed making Hebrew the only official language in Israel, thereby demoting Arabic.
Another Netanyahu ally, Yariv Levin, who is due in several weeks to become chair of the powerful foreign affairs and defence committee of the Knesset, took pains to praise a vicious racist song released last week by performer Amir Benayoun. The song caricatures Arabs as being bloodthirsty “scum” waiting for the opportunity to stab Jews in the back.
Meanwhile, the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman is making no secret of his desire to rid Israel of Arabs, proposing in a new “peace plan” he unveiled Friday that they should be given financial incentives to leave Israel.
This attack was no isolated event, but rather a telling symptom of a very deep malady that starts at the top. Even if parents’ worst fears for the safety of their children do not materialise, the larger problem of a government that itself rides the waves of racism will remain.
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