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'We will overcome': Arson and mourning at Jerusalem's bilingual school

The mixed Jewish-Arab school has been the target of racist attacks in the past, but for the parents, students and teachers of the ‘Hand in Hand’ school, this feels different. ‘This time, the fire was ignited inside our home.’

Firefighters in a classroom that was set on fire in the bilingual Hand In Hand school in Jerusalem, November 29, 2014. (Photo by Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)

Firefighters in a classroom that was set on fire in the bilingual Hand In Hand school in Jerusalem, November 29, 2014. (Photo by Tali Mayer/Activestills.org)

The timing couldn’t have been more “perfect”: while I was still at a demonstration against the “Jewish Nation-State Law” outside the Prime Minister’s Office, I got a message saying that the bilingual school was set on fire. Here we were demonstrating against political arson, and not too far away someone is already doing it with gasoline and matches. This time, the fire was ignited inside our home.

The smell of fire is still very strong in the parking lot across from the school. Slowly slowly, parents, teachers, students and recent graduates begin to arrive. Nobody is in a hurry to go inside, as if we fear actually seeing what we expect there, all while we’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened and the extent of the damage. “A first grade classroom was completely burned,” somebody says, “and the other first-grade classroom sustained serious damage, too.” The blood drains from our faces. They burned the first-grade classrooms? The classrooms in which children for the first time in their lives scribbled letters into words: “love, friendship, respect?”

We later learn that the arsonists threw all of the books that they found in the classrooms into a pile and burned them. The image is too difficult to even fathom, and a part of me is relieved that firefighters and police have cordoned off the burned classrooms and aren’t letting anyone in. Who can rid such an image from their head — a burned first-grade classroom?

A burned first-grade classroom at Jerusalem’s bilingual school after it was the target of an arson attack, November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

A burned first-grade classroom at Jerusalem’s bilingual school after it was the target of an arson attack, November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

A burned first-grade classroom at Jerusalem’s bilingual school after it was the target of an arson attack, November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

A burned first-grade classroom at Jerusalem’s bilingual school after it was the target of an arson attack, November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Within an hour the school is bustling with people. Among the police officers, firefighters, people from the Jerusalem education bureau and other officials, are the rest of us: teachers, students and school staff. You can see the shock on our faces. I recognize a student who graduated last year and who lives on the other side of the city; I ask her what she’s doing here. “Since the Gaza war and everything that’s been happening in Jerusalem recently, I feel like I’m losing hope. I felt like everything that we built here over the past 12 years has been destroyed in two months. But anyway, the moment I heard that the school had been burned, I ran to come here. That’s something that never changes, it seems. This is home. I grew up here. They’re destroying my home. We fight over the land but this is my land. This school is my land.”

An outsider wouldn’t understand it, the deep feeling of belonging. That’s how it always works here: when it gets tough, we want to be together. Jut like during the war when we marched along the light rail tracks every week, and when it was important to make sure that the sane voice of Jerusalem was heard, but also when we just wanted to be together. And also now, as we shake off the feelings of helplessness and get ready for action: preparing alternate classrooms for those that were burned, making colorful banners for the first graders to see when they arrive in the morning, hanging signs in the hallways, cleaning, organizing. Home.

Banners hung outside Jeruslem’s “Hand in Hand” bilingual school reading, roughly translated as “moving forward together,” November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Banners hung outside Jeruslem’s “Hand in Hand” bilingual school reading, roughly translated as “moving forward together,” November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

As we get to work, we are reminded of other episodes in our history in which the school faced harassment: that time that they went into the lower classes and covered with glue all of the desks that bore names of Arab children; or in the school’s previous building when they slid burning pieces of paper under the doors in a more symbolic act of arson. All of the hateful and garbled graffiti sprayed on our walls over the years. And despite all that, we understand that this time it’s different. The children wander around with their parents looking especially worried. “Nadia, will there be school tomorrow?” a young student asks one of the school’s co-directors. “Of course there will be,” Nadia answers confidently with a big smile. “Not only will there be school but you need to finish your homework!”

Meanwhile, statements of condemnation and support start to come in, and people begin organizing various rallies in solidarity and support for the next day. We go home knowing that we will meet here again in just a few hours.

This morning, we knew we better arrive early ahead of the tumult that would certainly await us at the entrance of the school. Indeed, hordes of reporters and photographers assembled at the entrance. A burned school is a big story, it seems. We manage to usher the children into the school and then wait outside for the supporters who were supposed to arrive. Somebody mentions that it feels like a shiva (a Jewish mourning ritual) — receiving mourners, awaiting consolation calls.

Supporters from anti-racism organization “Tag Meir” arrive to show support at the Jerusalem bilingual school that was the target of an arson attack the night before, November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Supporters from anti-racism organization “Tag Meir” arrive to show support at the Jerusalem bilingual school that was the target of an arson attack the night before, November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

And they came. Throngs of them came. The wonderful people from anti-racism group Tag Meir arrived, students and representatives of some other schools in the city also came, people from wider social circles, and other women and men who chose to spend their morning with us, in solidarity. An especially touching moment was when we saw a large group of youths chanting as they approached, and after our initial instincts — based on experience — made us shrink into a moment of fear, they got closer and we heard what they were chanting: “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.” It turned out that the neighboring “Rainbow School” canceled its classes so its students could come and support us. It’s hard to describe just how touching it was.

And the politicians came too, of course: MKs Nahman Shai and Erel Margalit, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who condemned the crime and called to restore routine to the city.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (center) arrives at the bilingual school in Jerusalem the morning after it was the target of an arson attack, November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (center) arrives at the bilingual school in Jerusalem the morning after it was the target of an arson attack, November 30, 2014. (Photo by Activestills.org)

I appreciate that Mayor Barkat came to visit the school — and I say that without any cynicism. It was the right thing to do and it was necessary. Once upon a time, during the weekly protests in Sheikh Jarrah, we used to say, “there’s nothing holy in an occupied city.” Today I want to tell Barkat: there isn’t anything routine in an occupied city. A routine of occupation and violence is a routine of iniquity. You can condemn the torching of a school as much as you want, but when 40 percent of the city’s residents under your jurisdiction live a daily war zone, there’s nothing routine about that. When the daily routine of over 350,000 people in the city you run is a routine of daylight robbery, of violent police raids, of sponge-tipped bullets and arrests, of “skunk” trucks that spray putrid water on homes and schools, that’s not a routine we want to adopt. When the students in our school must leave their homes two hours before school in order to travel a distance that should take only 20 minutes because their neighborhood is barricaded and blocked with concrete blocks, when our students breath in tear gas in their homes each week and come to school from a daily war zone, we won’t join your calls to restore routine.

The routine in your city is one of iniquity, Mr. Barkat. Our school’s community is strong and vibrant. We demand, of course, that you and your leadership provide our students with protection from the increasing violence. But like always, we will be doing the repairs and rehabilitation by ourselves, with the strength we draw from our moral high ground and the civil and social solidarity we’ve built. We will overcome. You, Mr. Barkat, go see to the well being of the city you have been entrusted with managing. And if you need inspiration — moral, ethical or from the community — you are always welcome to come visit the bilingual school. We will keep going it alone here, free from fear and hatred.

This article was first published on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

Related:
Jerusalem mixed school set on fire in apparent arson attack
Investigation of Abu Khdeir murder tainted by racism, police incompetence

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    COMMENTS

    1. This is a great school, a friend’s children attend and love it. Children are without guile and if they’re left alone they’ll get along with each other just fine. The violent, hateful criminals who perpetrated this crime knows that and wants to destroy something before it has a chance to fully develop – understanding of each other, our differences, our similarities and rejoicing in all of them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Whatever net address you have attached to your comments always fails when I try to go there. I’ve noticed this for some time.

        Reply to Comment
        • not on so-called social media.

          Reply to Comment
      • Sluggo

        But you live in California. Why lie?

        Reply to Comment
    2. Ben Zakkai

      Usually I just read the articles here at 972+ and drop straight down to the regular comments section at the bottom, but lately I’ve been glancing occasionally at the social media comments in-between, and I find myself heartened by the presence of Baruch Gottesman. Of course his titanic stupidity and dishonesty are quickly apparent once you’ve read two or three of his comments, and then when you Google his name you find he’s religious and from New York (surprise!), pushing 40, lonely to the point that he advertises on-line asking for Shabbos-meal invitations, “self-employed” in an evidence-free manner that indicates he’s underemployed or unemployed, and a devotee of Aish HaTorah, the Jewish back-to-orthodoxy movement that seeks out miserable, gullible souls who can be convinced (for a while, anyway) that they’re really wonderful, because they’re Jewish! And I think to myself, if Baruch and those like him are the passionate front-line defenders of Israel’s current Occupation-Apartheid regime, then that regime is in serious trouble.

      Reply to Comment
      • Sluggo

        That was inappropriate and unwelcome.

        Reply to Comment
        • The pot calling the kettle black. What a dipshit.

          Reply to Comment
        • Brian

          How revealing. Of both Gottesman and Slug. Thanks Greg.

          Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            I mean Ben.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Disgusted

      It takes a great great great evil to target schools, hospitals, homes of the elderly and disabled. Oh and I’m not actually talking about Gaza alone – Hasabra trolls will assume so.

      The same evil that targeted this school claims to represent world Jews, invades our places of worship and persecutes those with ANY opposing ideas – such as harmony and equality.

      This schools burning represents the microcosm of not what Israel will become but what it already IS.

      To deny it is to deny the severity of the cancer and focus on only the symptoms.

      This was SCHOOL IN ISRAEL and it was burned for promoting harmony not just tolerance and understanding. Everything that Likud and right abhor was in this school.

      As I stated before everything that’s happening is all Israels making.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Yet the right has built a school in Ariel which has more Arab students than this school in Jerusalem. Does not the school in Ariel show the desire of Israel to live in harmony with Arabs?

        Do the actions of price tag activists represent Israel when Israeli leaders on the right and left and inside green line Israel and in Judea and Samaria condemn these acts of terror?

        Reply to Comment
        • What does Ariel have to do with this school? Nothing. What is your point? Just arm flapping, head spinning, bullshitting hasbara. Cha-ching!

          Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Read what Disgusted posted claiming that the right opposes everything which the school represented. I pointed out that the right built Ariel University which has more Arabs attending it than the school. The point is that the right supports co-existence with Ariel University.

            Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            Appallingly dishonest. The Right has no intention of “co-existing with” and “living in harmony with” any but subjugated, disenfranchised, goyimmitudinized, land-deprived Arab theft-victims.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Sluggo

      The same cut and paste job. Tsk tsk

      Reply to Comment
      • “Stalking Sluggo – so none of your posts made it past the moderators at Mondoweiss? They’re doing their job. You’re getting a free pass here and this is what you choose to do? What a silly little man you are. Or silly little woman? Hard to tell, y’all sound so much a like. Must be the small gene pool.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Sluggo

          Can’t wait to hear about your little experiment Anmie!

          Reply to Comment
    5. nsttnocontentcomment

      Reply to Comment