Climbing the winding road to Neveh Shalom takes a certain determination. Most
visitors come to this joint Jewish-Arab community on a hilltop near Latrun to
meet with the Arab and Jewish residents, all Israeli citizens, who have
pioneered in building a shared community since this village was founded in the
1970s. Their bilingual school, opened in 1984, was the first of its kind in
And then there are the malicious cowards who entered Neveh Shalom
in the middle of the night on June 8.
They left messages of “Death to
Arabs,” “Revenge,” and other hateful, threatening graffiti on walls and cars for
the residents of the Oasis of Peace, as Neveh Shalom is known in English, to
find the next morning.
That the vandalism occurred “in a place where
Arabs and Jews pledged to live together in peace made the crime all the more
severe,” said Israel Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino.
But Neveh Shalom
was not the first institution of Arab-Jewish cooperation in Israel to suffer
such an attack this year. In February, a bilingual elementary school in
Jerusalem, the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education, was twice
vandalized with such hateful spray-painted slogans as “Kahane was right” and
“Death to Arabs.”
“These perpetrators consider all Palestinians west of
the Jordan River, whether they are under occupation or are Israeli citizens,
enemies,” says Shuli Dichter, executive director of Hand in Hand, an Israeli
organization that has founded bilingual schools in Jerusalem, Wadi Ara and the
Galilee. Another bilingual school, Hagar, operates in Beersheba.
attacking Hand in Hand and Neveh Shalom/Wahat a-Salam, they are also targeting
Jews who are seeking partnership with Arab citizens in Israel,” says Dichter.
“This racism is ethnically blind.”
Dichter is hopeful the attacks were
isolated incidents. But some of the graffiti, such as “Hi from Ulpana,” strongly
indicate a link to disgruntled West Bank settlers. Jewish- Arab coexistence
organizations may need to be more vigilant, though they are certainly not going
to be deterred by the threats.
What does government action to take down a
West Bank outpost such as Ulpana, determined to be illegal by the Supreme Court,
have to do with Arab-Jewish cooperation in Israel? The plethora of grassroots
and Israeli government efforts devoted to improving majority-minority relations
enhances Israeli society, fulfills the promise of Israel’s founders, and
provides an example for the country’s Arab neighbors.
But extremists have
a very different, and ultimately dangerous, view. They envision Israel as a
Messianic paradise devoid of people who are not Jewish. And were they able to
rid Israel of non-Jews, inevitably they would turn on fellow Jews who disagree
with their political, religious and cultural beliefs. Extremism has no
Israel, as well as the US, has suffered the consequences of
action by unchecked fanatics who will not hesitate to use violence to advance
The attacks on their schools have encouraged Neve Shalom
residents and Hand in Hand participants to expand their efforts to educate young
Israelis, Jews and Arabs, together. Israel’s educational system has historically
provided separate schools for Arabs and Jews. Hand in Hand, responding to the
interests of parents, will open its unique educational framework in Haifa, as
well as Jaffa, this year.
These bilingual schools are contributing, at
least locally in key regions of the country, to building a stronger Israeli
society where values of respect for others and mutual understanding are vitally
The schools are public and use the Education Ministry’s
Hand in Hand raises additional funds to make the educational
experience bilingual. That means providing two teachers, one speaking Hebrew,
the other Arabic, and providing additional specialized
Dichter, who has devoted his career to advancing Jewish-Arab
relations in Israel, recognizes the value of investing in community building and
school education to advance these relations. So has the US
The US Agency for International Development has provided Hand
in Hand with a $1.08 million grant to help establish additional schools and to
create communities of adults, both parents of school children and members of the
wider community, to create educational, social and cultural institutions to help
sustain shared communities.
As they do in other democratic nations,
including the US, extremists will no doubt continue to challenge efforts to
break down barriers and build more harmonious societies.
support, moral and financial, from the highest levels of the Israeli government
as well as from American Jews would be helpful.
For now, Hand in Hand is
celebrating another milestone this week, as the second class of Arab and Jewish
students graduate from its Jerusalem high school.
The writer is the
American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.
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