Jewish residents in Ramle are trying to block the opening of an Arab school in the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, fearing it will harm property values and increase crime. The Jewish residents, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and veterans from the Bukharan community, are demanding that Mayor Yoel Lavi prevent the school's opening Wednesday.

Some 80 children in first through third grades are to study at the school, which occupies the second floor of the neighborhood shopping center and belongs to the Al Manahal organization, headed by Ramle resident Dr. Zeidan Nasser. Al Manahal recently rented the location and spent the past few weeks getting it ready for the school year: windows were fitted with bars, air conditioners were installed in classrooms, a lot of money went into buying necessary equipment.

Meanwhile, neighborhood residents worked feverishly to undermine the initiative, dispatching protest letters to Mayor Lavi that described the decision to rent the place to the Arab school as a "disaster."

"The neighborhood residents are disgruntled and threatening to leave. The neighborhood will suffer grave damage to its reputation as happened in Ramat Eshkol neighborhood and in the Academa'im neighborhood in Lod. We have enough trouble with the Arab schools in the vicinity. We don't hate Arabs, and neither do we love them. Our culture and lifestyle are different," one letter to the municipality stated.

One of the leaders of the campaign is the rabbi of Ramle's Bukharan community, Shalom Mordechai: "This is an upscale neighborhood and an Arab school could lower its standard. There's one Arab school already near our neighborhood, so the police frequently come round here. We approached the mayor and explained to him that this is a prestigious neighborhood. Suddenly a new type of people comes in and we're afraid of the consequences. I'm worried people will leave the neighborhood. In the Academa'im neighborhood in Lod, people invested their life's savings, bought homes for $170,000 and later were forced to sell them for $40,000-50,000," he said.

Al Manahal contends it wants to introduce an educational revolution in Ramle, with dreams of turning the school into a multicultural haven for Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Rabbi Mordechai is unimpressed. "They work systematically. They talk about pluralism, about high-level education. First they'll send their kids here, then the parents will come live here. That's their modus operandi." He denies any racism is involved. "Nobody hates them. They have neighborhoods of their own, let them live and study there. Why do they need an Arab school in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood? I support progressive education, even appreciate it, but let them do it in their own neighborhoods," he said.

According to Al Manahal director Nasser, the decision to open the school in Kiryat Menachem was not one of choice. "If they'd let us open the school in one of the Arab neighborhoods, we'd do that. The municipality won't help us and we had no choice. This was the only place we could find. Ramle is a mixed city and I have a right to open the school in Kiryat Menachem neighborhood. Residents can also open a Jewish school in Juarish, an Arab neighborhood. This shouldn't pose any problem," he said.

If the school opens as planned, residents say they will take action. "We'll mount a demonstration the very same day across from the municipality. What, they want to join the cat and mouse together?" asked Rabbi Mordechai.

Municipal officials said an alternative building is available in the old city, but transfering it requires prior participation in a tender.

Al Manahal recently displayed several letters to Mayor Lavi requesting a building for the school. No reply was received, so "we had to act on our own," Dr. Nasser said.

The school, which plans to add a grade each year, seeks to provide Ramle's Arabs with an alternative to the existing education system. "Arab residents are disappointed with the low level of achievement at Arab schools in town. Last year 230 graduated from the comprehensive Arab school, only 108 of them sat for matriculation exams, and only 16 of those earned the certificate," said Dr. Nasser.

Municipal officials countered that Ramle's Arab schools are well cared for. "All Arab schools in town are computerized, there are libraries and advanced laboratories. Last year alone we invested NIS 15 million on Arab schools, for construction and development."