In Israel, a 'Zero Tolerance' Policy on Hate Crimes Just Isn't Enough

How has it come to pass that attacks on institutions that work towards Arab-Jewish coexistence are considered a matter of course?

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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A burnt classroom at Max Rayne Yad be Yad School in Jerusalem. November 30, 2014.
A burnt classroom at Max Rayne Yad be Yad School in Jerusalem. November 30, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

The floor is soggy. The air is acrid. The walls are black.

There is always a terrible smell after a fire that was set to destroy. But the smell of burned children’s books and charred cubby holes is particularly bad. It gets inside: into your eyes, up your nose, under your skin.

Various political figures have showed up at the doors of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem looking to lend their support. The most prominent among these was Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who on Sunday said that she would show “zero tolerance towards this situation of violence in Israeli society.”

Zero tolerance. That’s a term that first came into vogue in 1970s America, and by the 1990s, mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani convinced New Yorkers that it was the answer to the city’s crime problem. Zero tolerance, it seems, was based on the “broken windows” theory posited by two American conservatives in the 1980s: If you don’t fix a broken window right away, it snowballs. More windows get broken and the building becomes derelict, the neighborhood starts to look like a slum. People lose respect and begin to see it as trashable, fair game for drug users, criminals and squatters. The whole place begins to go downhill. But by refusing to let things slide, they posited – zero tolerance – crime could be squelched and neighborhoods could be saved.

The problem is that the authorities have been letting things slide for quite some time. This was the fourth price-tag attack on Hand in Hand. Yet it was only a week ago, following the horrific terror attack in Har Nof, that closed-circuit security cameras were installed at the entrance to the school.

When a plan for the economic and social development of East Jerusalem was submitted to the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet in June, the government gave $76 million (300 million shekels) to the municipality. Of that, notes Nir Hasson in a comprehensive report published on Monday, two thirds was dedicated to improving the lives of East Jerusalem residents and “strengthening their connection with Israel.” The rest was earmarked for improving security in the city’s eastern half.

What that means, says Jerusalem City Councilman Laura Wharton (Meretz), is spending money protecting Jews who have moved into the heart of Arab neighborhoods like Silwan and Ras el-Amud, adding friction to an already tense city.

“Too little has been done too late,” Wharton says. “I think that this school should demand that at least a portion of that would go to help their security needs. It’s a really disturbing distortion of the allocation of budgets that when Arabs are attacked or when Arab-Jewish schools are attacked they turn a blind eye, but if someone gets a rock in East Jerusalem, they immediately pour money to it, and in this case, 100 million shekels.”

Paz Cohen is the head of the Jerusalem Parent-Teacher Association and the parent of three kids who attend the Hand in Hand school, including a first-grader whose classroom was burned. “It was really shocking for me,” Cohen says. “Who can do a thing like that, take the books of children and just burn it?” The school urgently needs a higher level of protection, he adds. “There is clearly not enough security at school but at the same time, there is no security in many places in Jerusalem,” says Cohen. “We insist that they bring more guards, and this is beginning to change. Parents are worried, and I can’t say that things are the same as before, but we will continue in our beliefs and our way.”

These price-tag attacks are not only tolerated, but seem to have become our own broken windows. It’s almost come to be expected that progressive or left-leaning Jewish organizations, institutions that work for Arab-Jewish coexistence, and Muslim or Christian property will be defaced on a regular basis with graffiti reading “Death to Arabs” or “Kahane was right.” And yet, it seems no one has been prosecuted in any of these attacks.

“No one has been arrested,” Wharton says. “No one has even been called in to be questioned by the police. For so long, the city, the police and the national government have ignored all the signs that we were heading down a slippery slope.”

Mickey Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said that there were several open investigations of price-tag attacks in Jerusalem and in the West Bank, but no indictments of which he was aware.

Hatem Mattar, co-chairman of the parents committee at Hand in Hand, has put two children through the school – one started 13 years ago and just graduated. “I am still positive about the future of this school,” he says. “I have a feeling that this will not only pass, but it will increase the numbers in the school, because every time we have something like this, more families want to enroll, not less.”

In fact, the numbers have gone up steadily each year: this year’s enrollment at the school grew 10 percent this year over last year. The network’s newest school in Jaffa had to add a third kindergarten class this August, since parents were pushing to get in despite the horrors of the war – or maybe because of it.

“We have many other places competing to be the next location,” says Rebecca Bardach, the Director of Resource Development and Strategy
Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. Next up, she says, is Haifa: Hand in Hand is working together with the municipality to open a kindergarten and a first-grade class under municipal auspices next September.

The determination shows not just in the fact that their goal is to open 10 to 15 more schools across Israel, but in the fact that the school community came together to provide what is needed. Over late Sunday and overnight, the room most heavily damaged in the fire was almost completely renovated.

But the problem is not just this one attack – it’s the atmosphere in the city and in the country. Students have recently been excused from being required to wear the official school shirt, with its logo in Hebrew and Arabic, because both Jewish and Arab students have been harassed on buses about their school affiliation. For some bus lines that have been particularly problematic, volunteers are being recruited to escort the students. The fact that that is necessary tells us something is very troubling here, and perhaps more insidious that an arson attack and some graffiti. For this, we need more than a zero tolerance policy. We need a major rethink. And we need to let that bad smell, the one that gets under your skin and into your throat, make us want a society that looks very different.

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