This past school year was a most difficult one for anyone committed to shared, dignified, and equal life between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Recently, parents and teachers packed the halls of Jerusalem’s district court to attend the sentencing hearing for the arsonists convicted of destroying two first-grade classrooms in Jerusalem’s bilingual Hand in Hand school. The defense attorneys requested mercy from the court. However, as our group left the courtroom, the father of the two arsonists snarled, “What a shame that the burnt classroom was not filled with Arabs!” About a week later, on the last day of the school year, Hand in Hand was once again the target of hate-filled vandals who sprayed swastikas and anti-Arab messages along our walls.
June 2015 brought to a close one of the most complex and stormy school years in Israel’s recent history. During the end-of-year celebrations at the bilingual schools and kindergartens, I could not detect any remnants of this difficult time among the students. They eagerly awaited their report cards signaling the moment of their liberation from school for the summer. Yet, despite the children’s joy, the adults present were wary and alert to the pain and sorrow of a year that began with the cruel murder of four young boys, three Jews and one Palestinian, and the wave of hatred, incitement, and racism that followed in its wake.
Last November, a day after the arson at the Jerusalem Bilingual School, a 10th grade student remarked, “What a drag, this horrible summer hasn’t ended…!” Indeed, it continued, through the cold, snowy winter and remains to this day. The summer war in Gaza and the surrounding area was crueler and harsher than any previous wars. The war claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Palestinians and more than 70 Jews; first grade classrooms were set on fire in a ‘price tag’ attack on the Jerusalem Bilingual School in November; general elections in the Spring took racism to unforeseen heights with the Prime Minister’s statement that “the Arabs are racing to the polls in masses…”; and the new Knesset is more polarized and combative than ever. This past year Israel appeared to be drowning in a sea of hate speech, racism, and violence.
The response to this wave of hatred among parents at the bilingual schools has been unequivocal. Last summer, they stood together in Israel’s public spaces: along the central highway running through Wadi Ara; the main intersection in the Galilee; the streets of Haifa; the main boulevards of Jaffa; and the length of Jerusalem’s Railway Park. Parents gathered week after week chanting: “We are standing together and walking together.” The message was loud and clear, and was heard by hundreds who joined them, transforming the marches and vigils into a demonstration of sanity during that hate-filled summer.
And now, still in the midst of all of this racist incitement and hatred, Hand in Hand centers are experiencing an unprecedented demand for bilingual education. Why? What are we to understand from the fact that registration at every Hand in Hand bilingual school and kindergarten exceeds the number of available spaces, and that the number of new pupils is expected to rise by 18% (yes, “Chai”)? How do we explain that almost every month, groups of parents and citizens from different parts of the country ask us to help them found a bilingual school for their children and establish shared community of Jews and Arabs in their area?
This year more than ever Hand in Hand became an address for those in opposition to racist and divisive trends. What we see at our doorstep is an inclusive and constructive response to a negative trend: an inclusive social stream that aims to join forces, face these tensions together, and bridge the diving gaps.
This counter-trend shows us the importance of giving such intentions a place to be expressed and built upon. It merits every bit of encouragement and support among municipal and national authorities, and continued leadership by civic institutions.
Hand in Hand schools and communities are far from the only address for this vision. Civil society organizations and leaders that seek a shared, dignified and equal life between Arabs and Jews in Israel come from diverse and varied backgrounds. It is a result of these collective efforts that, when the wave of incitement builds, individuals from all parts of Israel can be part of a stabilizing and unifying response.
It is my hope that their voice and ours continues to be heard loud and clear.
Shuli Dichter is executive director of the Hand in Hand Association for Bilingual Education. His book, On Tensions and Good Intentions, was recently published by Kibbutz Meuchad publishing house.