Intolerance in Israel Reaches Hand in Hand

I have reprinted in its entirety a recent article from Haaretz about the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem and the ultra orthodox Jewish opposition that has galvanized to protest the school.  How can we ever expect Israel to resolve the Palestinian question in any constructive manner when the forces of bigotry and intolerance for integrated childhood education rear their heads– demanding segregation between blue-passport-carrying Israelis who happen to be Arab and their fellow Jewish citizens ?

This type of racist and ignorant behavior should inspire us only to press forward with greater determination and continue promoting religious pluralism between Israeli Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the land that is Holy to all of them, and to so many of us….

Friday, April 7, 2006

Breaking new ground in J’lem By Daphna Berman

The groundbreaking ceremony was held this week for the controversial new home of Jerusalem’s only Jewish-Arab school. The site for the new building, which will be named for the late Jewish British philanthropist Max Rayne, is between the Jewish Patt neighborhood and the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa.

While supporters say the school represents hope for coexistence and multiculturalism, the project has come under attack. Noted kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri called the school "despicable and sinful."

Batzri and his son, Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, are being investigated by the State Prosecutor’s Office for incitement to racism on the basis of their remarks. About one-third of the estimated $11-million cost of the new building was donated by the Rayne Foundation. Completion is expected by early 2008. The new campus is nine dunam (2.25 acres) in size.

"This is an important project because we’ve always been great promoters of peace, and the way to do it is to learn at a young age how to coexist," Lady Jane Rayne said. Max Rayne’s widow traveled from the U.K. for the ceremony, together with members of her extended family and other foundation trustees.

The school, known as the Hand-In-Hand Centre for Jewish-Arab Education in Jerusalem, was founded in 1998. It is currently located in the working-class, Jewish Katamonim neighborhood. But the building is old and it is too small to properly accommodate even the current enrollment of 312. At least 12 names are already on the waiting list for each grade. With room for 500 students, the new building will be able to accommodate the school’s natural growth. Administrators are also interested in expanding into a high school.

"Conditions in the current building are very difficult," said Amin Khalaf, co-director of Hand in Hand, the non-profit organization behind the project. "These children, like all children, deserve a normal school." The school’s format is unique in the capital. In accordance with its pedagogical mission, each classroom has two teachers, one Jewish and one Arab, and subjects such as math, science and history are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic. The school also has an Arab and a Jewish principal. Since it receives Education Ministry funding it maintains the Israeli 180-day school year while accommodating the holidays of its Jewish, Christian and Muslim student body and faculty.

In a short tour this week, the British guests observed as kindergarteners made Passover haroset and then put on an impromptu show that included an Arabic rendition of "Jingle Bells." Daniel Mimran, executive director of the Jerusalem Foundation, which is overseeing the building of the new school, said the location of the new campus was selected deliberately.

"We wanted the building to be on the seam between the two neighborhoods," he said. "There are always going to be people for and against any project. We spoke to Arab and Jewish neighbors. The people who are protesting against the building don’t even live in the neighborhood."

The movement against the project has become increasingly vocal. It made headlines recently when Batzri senior, head of the city’s Hashalom yeshiva, told a neighborhood gathering against the project that "the establishment of such a school is a despicable and sinful act. An Arab cannot contaminate what is pure. It is forbidden to blend darkness and light. The nation of Israel is pure and the Arabs are a nation of donkeys. They are an evil disaster, an evil devil and a nasty affliction." His son reportedly echoed his father’s words, calling Arabs "donkeys and beasts." "They want to take our girls. They are endowed with true filthiness. There is pure and there is impure and they are impure," Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri allegedly said.

Rabbi David Batzri received wide media coverage after calling the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina last summer divine retribution for U.S. support of the Gaza disengagement. He has also been quoted as saying that Jewish law calls for homosexuals to be "put to death." In a telephone conversation with Haaretz this week, Batzri junior, who fields media inquiries for his father, refused to comment on the incident or this week’s ceremony. He suggested contacting Haim Miller, a former Jerusalem deputy mayor representing United Torah Judaism.

Miller, who has taken over the Batzris’ crusade and is a leader in the movement against the school, did not return several telephone calls. The veteran anti-missionary group Yad Le’Achim has also become involved in the battle. Chairman Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifschitz warns that the new school will be a cause of assimilation. "When children are educated together, they become friends and that may lead to intermarriage," he said this week.

"After the school day is over, the building will be used as a center for Arab and Jewish children to meet and in my experience, nothing good can come from this. They say that we are racists, but this has nothing to do with race – we just don’t want to lose Jewish souls.

This isn’t good for Arabs or for Jews and having a joint school isn’t the way to bring about peace. You have peace if you live next to each other and respect each other, but nothing beyond that."

Khalaf, co-director of Hand in Hand, rejects Lifschit’s arguments. "This doesn’t lead to assimilation, just the opposite," he insisted. "If anything, the school sharpens the children’s identities because people understand themselves in comparison to other people. In regular schools, identity is taken for granted, but by meeting people who are different the students are forced to ask themselves, ‘Who am I?’"

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