Students at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School returned to school Sunday as police continue to investigate the vandalism and arson attack that damaged Jerusalem’s bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school Saturday night.
School officials and parents said they would not allow the anti-coexistence message to derail their mission, as dozens rallied outside to denounce the incident and ministers condemned the attack.
Firefighters responding to a fire set in the school’s playground Saturday night found racist anti-Arab graffiti spray painted on the buildings, reading “Death to Arabs,” “Kahane was right” and “down with assimilation.”
“There is no coexistence with cancer,” read another tag spray-painted on a wall.
At a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack and pledged to act “forcefully” to return “the rule of law” across all parts of the city.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni pledged a “zero tolerance” approach to anyone behind such acts of racist violence.
“I will work determinedly against everyone who acts against the law and expresses through violence the racist demon which has emerged in Israeli society — whether it is through hateful graffiti, arson or other forms of violence,” she told reporters at the school.
Livni added that all of Israel’s law enforcement agencies were united in their zero-tolerance approach to such acts.
Nadia Knane, the school’s headmistress, said one of the first-grade classrooms had been badly damaged by the fire, and that the attackers had tried to set alight another classroom.
“After I saw what was written, I realized it was not just a fire. They wrote ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘Kahane was right’ — words which have a lot of meaning,” she told Army Radio.
Meir Kahane was a virulently anti-Arab rabbi whose Kach party was banned from the Knesset over incitement to racial hatred but whose ideology still inspires loyalty among some Jewish extremists.
“The school had been targeted several times in recent months but every other time was outside the school. This is the first time it was inside,” the headmistress said.
“The fact that they went into a first-grade class is really crossing a red line.”
Inside the classroom, blackened and charred books were piled in the middle of the floor and the walls and ceiling were badly burned. On the balcony outside were the words “Death to Arabs.”
Outside, some 300 people gathered to express support for the school and its pupils and teachers and to denounce the attack, rallying under banners in Hebrew and Arabic reading “Spread light instead of terror” and “No to hatred, no to racism, yes to coexistence, yes to partnership.”
Undeterred, students from the class came to school as normal on Sunday morning after an alternative spot was found for them in the school.
“There are people who don’t want to see coexistence in this city,” Ronit Rosenthal, a parent of two students, told Ynet news. “Neither we nor any other school where Jews and Arabs study together is prepared to give up.”
Speaking to AFP, Hatam Mattar, head of the parents’ committee, denounced the incident as “a barbaric attack.”
Shuli Dichter, chief executive of the Hand-in Hand foundation, which manages five of the country’s seven bilingual schools, said it was time to change the public atmosphere in order to prevent such attacks.
“In the past months, we’ve witnessed… a wave of racism (that) is dangerous, even physically dangerous,” he told Army Radio.
“If we manage to create a public atmosphere of a shared society between Jews and Arabs we will be able to prevent acts like this in future. There is a guard on the gate but such lone acts are very difficult to stop.”
Lawmakers from across the political spectrum denounced the attack on the country’s largest Jewish-Arab institution.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also condemned the attack on the school, saying the municipality won’t allow pyromaniacs and rioters to take the law into their own hands and disrupt the pace of life in the city.
“We’ll continue to denounce the radicals and do all that’s necessary to return quiet to Jerusalem,” he said.
Education Minister Shai Piron spoke out against the possible arson, saying it was a “violent, criminal and despicable act done to undermine the foundations of Israeli democracy.”
“Unfortunately, there are extremists who interpret the harsh debate in the Knesset around the Jewish state bill by taking the law into their own hands,” wrote Hatnua MK Amir Peretz on his Facebook page.
Hatnua MK Amram Mitzna, chairman of the Knesset’s Education, Culture, and Sport Committee, said that “the attack aimed specifically at an educational institution that represents the desire of the two nations to bridge-building and education for peace is unacceptable, and we must condemn it stridently, and do everything possible in order to find and bring those responsible to justice.”
No injuries were reported in Saturday’s attack, but serious damage was caused to one of the classrooms, and several walls of the structure suffered minor damage as well, Israel Radio reported.
On Sunday, a spokesperson for Israel’s Fire and Rescue services confirmed that the attack was deliberately started.
The five Hand in Hand schools across the country educate over 1,000 students and aims to “create a strong, inclusive, shared society in Israel” through bilingual education in Hebrew and Arabic, and with integrated classes.
School representative Avi Sportas expressed his disappointment in police’s commitment to apprehending the perpetrators, pointing out that since 2009, 38 churches, mosques and other institutions have been attacked in similar nationalistically motivated “price tag” attacks and not a single perpetrator has been caught.
“The state knows how to apprehend terrorists in faraway places and can obtain a phone number in the middle of Gaza but they can’t catch these people, supposedly,” Sportas said.
In recent months, Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand school has been targeted numerous times by price tag extremists who have defaced the school with anti-Arab graffiti, most recently during Israel’s 50-day war with Hamas militants.
Saturday’s incident came amid heightened tensions in the capital between its Jewish and Arab residents following multiple deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks targeting Israeli civilians and amid friction over the status of the Temple Mount.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.