It was incomprehensible. Though I understood the words, I could not understand the announcement being made. The Hand in Hand school was on fire? I was at a rally in downtown Jerusalem protesting the Nation-State bill that was still, then, at the beginning of the legislative process. I hoped that I had misheard; perhaps it was a poor sound system unable to compete with the noise of a city awakening after Shabbat. But no, I had understood correctly.

I rushed to the school. Others were also pouring in, faces grim. It was the first grade classrooms that were on fire, one of them my son’s. Fresh graffiti on the walls left no doubt that it was arson with an agenda: 

Death to Arabs

Kahane was right

There is no coexistence with cancer 

When the firemen entered the burning classrooms, they were confronted by a huge pile of books and children’s homework in the centre of one room that had been set alight. 

It was four years ago on 29 November 2014, that arsonists set the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education, on fire. The arsonists, three young men, were caught, sentenced and imprisoned. All three have since been released.

And now, just a few weeks ago, the lead arsonist, Yitzhak Gabai, was invited to be interviewed on public television, Channel 20’s Heritage program. Amidst jokes and backslapping Gabai recounted, like a hero regaling the fans with his great adventures, step by step exactly how they did it:

We went to the school a day before to check it out. We wore masks and brought all of our equipment. We went to see where the security cameras were, see where we could park the car and how to run away where people wouldn’t see us.

I assume, said the interviewer, that you don’t want any young people to try to copy what you did, right?

To which Gabai responded: I’m not going to comment on what others should do — people should do what they want. But, he reassured his fellow panelists, it was worth it. 

Finally, commented another panelist, somebody honest, who isn’t sugar-coating everything.

State taxes paid for the public platform given this interview. Although Channel 20 is not widely watched, the interview spread through social media and was met with widespread horror. Fortunately, an investigation is now underway.

I wish I could believe that this interview represents Israeli society at a crossroads, that we are standing at an open door gazing at the possibility of extremism which we can choose to walk through or turn away from. But we are beyond that point, and deeply into a journey that has been underway for some years now. I began to worry some 10 years ago as I read more and more news reports about mayors and rabbis telling city residents: Do not rent to Arabs! And about “price tag attacks,” wherein far-right activists employ vigilante actions against Palestinians, Arab citizens of Israel, and sometimes pro-peace Israelis, with graffiti messages like Death to Arabs, Revenge, Kahane was right, often accompanied by other violence against property such as slashing or burning tires.

Where is the reaction? Where is the outraged response condemning this sort of extremist rhetoric and action? When statements like Death to Jews had been scrawled on walls in American or European cities, the Jewish community and its supporters rightly expect condemnation and action. Since price tag attacks began in 2005 there have been the occasional public reactions, most notably those organised by civil society organisation Tag Meir, as well as criminal investigations. All too often, however, if feels like there is silence rather than public outcry. 

Yes, living in conflict creates deep fears and hatred too. As people like to say about Israel, “it’s complicated.” One of those complexities is the necessity of creating good relations and a decent society for both the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, even as both are harmed by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Attacks on coexistence efforts are an active embrace of conflict and its terrible costs.

Normalisation of violent rhetoric normalises the underlying ideas; ideas eventually inspire action. Before the arson attack took place, Hand in Hand experienced several incidents of Death to Arabs graffiti on the outside school walls. The arson attack represented a shift from rhetoric to action. The Channel 20 interview moved the needle further, taking an evil deed committed in the dark of night, with caution and masks, and bringing it out to the glare of studio lights, with casual joking, hearty laughter and an encouraging atmosphere.

But those behind such attacks are not the only ones moving the needle. Although Israeli society is exhibiting growing extremism, there are also growing numbers galvanised to support coexistence efforts. Among them are more and more families, Jewish and Arab, who want to be part of the solution that joint schools provide.

Until a few years ago, Hand in Hand had three schools in Israel. Now Hand in Hand has six schools, with waiting lists in the hundreds, and plans to open more. Families in other cities, whom Hand in Hand has not had the resources to help, are starting joint preschools on their own. Parents are unwilling to wait until their children are too old to have the opportunity to grow up together.

Even at the government level, we see conflicting trends. July’s Nation State Law is a heavy-handed legislated effort to limit the place of Arabic and, at its heart, the status of the Arab community in Israel. At the same time, however, there is growing understanding from key officials about the importance of shared education as a key to improving Jewish-Arab relations. The State Comptroller issued a report two years ago arguing that the school system, which tracks students into separate Jewish and Arab schools, is systematically deepening the communal divide rather than bridging it. The report’s recommendations name many of the central aspects of the joint Jewish-Arab school model. City by city, we are seeing Israeli citizens turn to their elected officials with a growing sense of urgency and expectation that the public school system meet their demand for such schools.

The recent Channel 20 interview with Gabai has sparked outrage, despair and fear. But what is the best response to such hatred? Move the needle of hatred. Match each hate crime by opening another classroom or another school where Jewish and Arab children will grow up learning how to live together, and building a society worthy of our hopes for peace. That would be worth our efforts.

(This article was originally published in Times of Israel)

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Rebecca Bardach
Rebecca Bardach worked with refugees from the former Yugoslavia, and other international migration, relief and development efforts for 17 years before joining Hand in Hand: the Centre for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. She holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU and lives in Jerusalem.

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