Igniting hope

A fire fueled by hate unites a determined community in the Pat neighborhood.

Graffiti at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Center for Bilingual Education. (photo credit: COURTESY TAG MEIR)
Graffiti at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Center for Bilingual Education.
(photo credit: COURTESY TAG MEIR)
Little evidence remains of an arson attack Saturday that scorched a classroom complex in one of Israel’s few integrated Arab-Jewish schools.
Shortly after Arabic and Hebrew books were piled in the center of a classroom and set ablaze, a team from the Jerusalem Municipality quickly restored the floor, ceiling, walls and windows.
The only remaining indication of what happened is the smell of smoke – that, and a sharp heightening of solidarity, support and sudden media attention to a nearly unique instance of collaborative education, all unintended consequences of the arsonists’ attempt at intimidation.
“I guess they didn’t think about [that], but I guess they didn’t think about anything – other than interfering with this interaction between Jews and Arabs, trying to share their lives,” said Ronit Rosenthal, head of the parent-teacher association at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Center for Bilingual Education.
“Hatred is the main motive.”
As violence rages in the capital, the school in Jerusalem’s Pat neighborhood has become a focal point for racism towards the residents of city’s Arab areas, such as nearby Beit Safafa. Police arrested two 14-year-old boys Monday for posting signs such as one reading “Arabs are cancer” on the exterior walls.
Across the street, Jimmy Ben-Sadon, who owns a convenience store often frequented by the school’s pupils, pointed out white splotches on a Jerusalem stone wall where municipality workers had wiped away the words “Mavet le’aravim” (Death to Arabs), painted there during a spate of terror attacks last month.
But Saturday’s arson marks an escalation in the assaults against the school.
“It’s the first time that something bad happened inside the school.” Rosenthal said. “We’ve had graffiti like ‘mavet le’aravim’ in the past four or five years, but it’s the first time someone came inside and did real damage in the school, so it’s quite a shock. It’s much more scary than just graffiti outside, because all over Jerusalem you have ‘mavet le’aravim.’” Rosenthal said that when she heard about the blaze from one of the school’s principals (the high school and primary school are each headed by one Arab and one Israeli Jew), she immediately drove there “to see what was going on and what can I do to help.” Upon arriving, she found that many students, parents, teachers and graduates had gathered at the school. “People just came here because they felt like their home was burning,” she said. “It’s a second home for us.”
Rattled but determined not to be intimidated, Rosenthal said, “gathering together strengthened us,” tightening the bonds of an already close community.
Community members weren’t the only ones to respond. A roster of Israeli politicians including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni visited the school the morning after the fire to denounce radicalism and take photos with students. Media outlets from around the world sent correspondents.
Hatem Mattar has a daughter in the 12th grade and another who has graduated. He lives nearby, in a home with “two entrances, one in Beit Safafa and one in Pat,” and was one of the first people at the scene when the fire broke out.
He said he did “27 or 28” media interviews between Saturday and Tuesday; the attack also invoked an influx of support from “a lot of people we couldn’t believe were supporting us.”
“They’re giving us the chance to prove we are right,” he said. “They came here, they sent us a lot of letters, a lot of telephone calls. It made me proud of what we’re doing.”
Meanwhile, the response from the neighborhood was to reaffirm their support. After the attack, residents hung a sign on the front door reading in Hebrew, “We’re ashamed of the racism and violence, and we’re really happy you’re in our neighborhood.”
Sadon, the store owner, said that in spite of the recent vandalism and the incidents that preceded it, “student feel comfortable” and neighbors remain in favor of the school.
“Not even one person said ‘Wow, how good that they did this,’” he noted. “Not one person said it – nobody,” he added in English for emphasis.
The school security guard who first apprehended the two teenagers on Monday before they were arrested by police said that though incidents of graffiti happen from time to time, in general relations with residents of the Pat neighborhood are amiable.
“We have here a good neighborhood,” he said, minutes after the arrest.
The number of students in integrated schools like the Hand in Hand Center is so minuscule that mixed Jewish and Arab schools are not listed in statistical abstracts from the Central Bureau of Statistics. The 1,200 students in the five campuses run by the Hand in Hand nonprofit across Israel – half of them at the Jerusalem campus – are part of a system that exists on the fringes of Israel’s education complex, largely split between Arab and Jewish schools.
Here, Hebrew and Arabic education happens literally side-by-side. Up until the sixth grade, classes are taught by both an Arab and a Jewish teacher, with the extra educators paid via philanthropy and a NIS 500 monthly parent fee, said communications coordinator Noa Yammer. Thereafter, classes are taught in either Hebrew or Arabic – except for history classes, where both Palestinian and Jewish narratives are taught.
Each campus is a homegrown effort, arising due to demand from local Jewish and Arab parents, Yammer said. Once a community displays interest, Hand in Hand hires a community organizer and secures support and funding from local authorities.
In this way, campuses have sprung up in Haifa, Jaffa and the Arab towns of Sakhnin in the Galilee and Kafr Kara in the Center.
Yammer noted that the nonprofit plans to open five to 10 more schools in the next decade.
At various points throughout the day, the sound of children playing mingles with the call of the muezzin from Beit Safafa, which sits on hills overlooking Pat.
In a kindergarten class at the Jerusalem campus on Tuesday, a teacher rapidly switched back and forth between Arabic and Hebrew, asking children to name words beginning with each letter of the Arabic alphabet.
Outside, a seventh-grade Hebrew class took place on a set of steps in a sunny courtyard. The seventh graders had given up their classroom, so the first graders would have a place to learn while the burnt classrooms were restored. •