Opinion | Opinion

Israel must confront its “racist demon”

Last weekend, the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education in West Jerusalem was a target of a terrible and tragic arson attack, deliberately aimed at a beacon for tolerance and understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israeli society where coexistence is now under extreme duress.

The Hand in Hand school offers its 600 students, both Jewish and Arab, a bilingual education and an opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures, to get to know each other as human beings and to become friends. Jewish extremists are strongly suspected to be behind the attack. Although there were many security video cameras on the site, police did not make any arrests in the first 72 hours after the attack.

The details of the attack bear witness to the degree of hatred that has clearly infected a segment of Israeli society. If this was not clear last summer when Israeli extremists tortured and murdered 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir in revenge for the kidnapping and murder of three Israelis, it cannot be denied now. Truly, as Tzipi Livni said, a “racist demon” has emerged in Israel. If not confronted, it will eventually eat away at the country’s democracy from within.(Livni was Justice Minister when she spoke those words but has since been fired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).

The arsonists piled up Hebrew and Arabic schoolbooks in two first-grade classrooms, poured flammable liquid on them and set them alight. They used children’s crayons and drawings as kindling for the blaze and scrawled racist graffiti on the walls of the building. One of the classrooms was completely destroyed.

What kind of minds would do such a thing? What kind of education produced those minds? It is hard to think of any action more out of keeping with Jewish values than to burn books in a school. Those who committed this cowardly act were literally attempting to burn prospects for peaceful coexistence in Israel.

The parents and students who showed up for school the day after the attack and have refused to be intimidated deserve enormous credit for their courage and perseverance. But they cannot win this battle alone. All the resources of the State of Israel – police, judicial, education and social – must be brought to bear to fight this phenomenon, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

In fact, the entirety of the Jewish people – in Israel and abroad – needs to stand as one to convey clearly that there must be no place for racism in the homeland of a people who have suffered its effects so horribly throughout history. Jews burning books? The image is too terrible to accept quietly.

This attack should be seen against the background of a series of violent incidents in Jerusalem, including the heinous attack last month on a synagogue in which two Palestinians murdered four worshippers and a police officer. The ever-escalating tensions are being fanned by a constant stream of statements by Israeli and Palestinian leaders designed to whip up nationalist feelings instead of calming them.

It is time for all who care about Israel to sound the alarm. The country risks becoming engulfed in hatred. The election campaign which is about to begin risks exacerbating those tensions. We must pray that the country’s leaders exercise good judgment, resist the temptation to fan the flames and, whatever their political differences, stand together against racism and violence.

(Alan Elsner is Vice President for Communications for J Street.)