Jewish and Arab students from the country’s largest integrated school expressed solidarity Sunday after a nationalistically motivated hate crime, or “price-tag” attack, was carried out inside the institution the previous night.
On Saturday, at approximately 8 p.m., a preschool classroom in the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem School, overseen by Arab and Jewish principals in the capital’s Pat neighborhood, was likely set on fire by Jewish radicals, police said.
Hand in Hand, an NGO based in Israel, operates five bilingual schools across the country, where hundreds of Arab and Jewish students learn together in classes from pre-kindergarten to twelfth grade.
An investigation was opened when anti-Arab graffiti, including “death to Arabs,” “you can’t coexist with a cancer,” “Kahane was right,” and “enough with assimilation,” was found affixed to the school’s walls.
According to police, Saturday’s vandalism is the third time the school has been defaced with nationalistically- motivated graffiti in the past year.
As they sat together in a park several meters outside the school’s entrance, a group of Arab and Jewish friends who attend the high school portion of Hand in Hand said the attack would in no way affect their close friendships, or the institution’s mission of engendering coexistence.
“In our school, Jews and Arabs are like brothers and sisters,” said Avraham Sharif, a 16-year-old Arab junior. “This won’t change that.”
Basil Easa, a 17-year-old Jewish senior, said that despite repeated attempts to incite hatred, the students would continue to remain close.
“There are no problems inside the school, only on the outside,” said Easa. “The right-wing Jews don’t like that Arabs and Jews are learning together. Last night, I saw the fire when I was driving by and I felt sad because this is my school and this place is peaceful and responsible.”
Another Arab student, who requested anonymity, said the arson rattled him, but only reinforced the school’s mission to instill respect and tolerance between the two otherwise warring communities.
“I didn’t believe it happened when I heard about it,” he said. “It’s hard for me to accept because I’ve been here since kindergarten and there have been no problems between Arabs and Jews.”
“This is a bad thing, but it shows us how important this school – and the idea behind it – is,” he continued.
While Sharif conceded that the arson and hate speech made him somewhat fearful of Jewish radicals outside the school’s walls, he reiterated that it would not create tension within the school itself.
“It’s not safe out there, but we can’t blame the Jews at school because they are like brothers to us,” he said. “Like I said, we are like brothers and sisters here. [Extremists] won’t change that.”
Moreover, Easa said the school must continue to serve as a beacon of hope for coexistence amid a nation torn apart by hate.
“We want to prove that Arabs and Jews can live together in Israel,” he said. “We are all human and need to respect each other.”
Easa continued: “We are going to show them that we don’t care what they do because it is their problem, not ours.”
Meanwhile, during a Sunday morning tour of the school, Education Minister Shai Piron called the arson an “intolerable crime” full of hate.
“The fact that damage was done to this place is a terrible message for Israeli society,” he said. “The revolting arson and graffiti are an attack aimed at injuring the heart of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.”
The education minister further called to “do everything possible to catch the culprits and bring them to justice.”
MK Amram Mitzna (Hatnua), head of the Knesset Committee on Education, Culture and Sports, also strongly condemned the attack, and called on all sectors of society to do the same.
MK Eitan Cabel, chairman of the Labor Party, said that in light of the event he intends to resubmit his bill to classify such hate crimes as an act of terrorism.
“It is in Israel’s unequivocal interest to crush this ugly phenomenon, and it will not disappear if we continue to deny its existence, but only if we confront it with courage and determination,” he said.
Balad also released a statement calling the arson another “act of terrorism joining a string of ‘price-tag’ attacks.”
The party criticized the police and law enforcement agencies for “not resolving even a single case of the ‘price-tag’ terrorist activities,” which it said “gives a boost to terrorists to continue their horrific acts.”
It also criticized the current administration for fostering an environment of “racism and hate,” alluding to the passing last week of the “Jewish state” bill by the cabinet.
“Balad places full responsibility of the criminal arson on the government and on the police and reiterates its demand to immediately declare ‘price-tag’ [offenders] as a terrorist organization and act to identify and arrest the terrorists and prosecute them,” it said.
Hand in Hand executive director Shuli Dichter also issued a statement Sunday, insisting the vandals will not succeed in tearing the school apart.
“This is not the first time that our shared civic endeavor has been targeted,” Dichter said. “Even when they stain our school walls, they will not succeed in destroying our work. In addition to strong condemnations and expressions of support, we invite the Israeli public to join us in building civic cooperation among Jews and Arabs in Israel.”
Dichter said his organization will continue to grow and develop its educational and social structures, where 1,200 students, 200 teachers, and thousands of community members come together every day.
The American Jewish Committee also condemned the attack against the school, which it described as “an inspiring example of the effort to strengthen Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and to build a platform of coexistence and mutual understanding.”
“The perpetrators of this despicable act not only harm an innovative school, but also attack an essential pillar of Israel,” AJC executive director David Harris said on Sunday.
Meanwhile, graffiti reading “In a place where a Jewish state bill will be legislated, books will be burned,” was found sprayed on the exterior wall of a synagogue in central Tel Aviv Sunday evening, police said.
A handful of books were found burned below the graffiti, although none of them was a religious book, police said.
Ben Hartman contributed to this report.