Arson Suspected in Library Fire at Jewish-Arab School for Peace in Neveh Shalom

Residents suspect fire may have been connected to school's retraction of admission of 15 Arab students to 1st grade, in an effort to maintain a closer balance between Jews and Arabs

Nir Hasson
Jack Khoury
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The library adjacent to the School for Peace following the fire, Neveh Shalom, September 7, 2020.
The library adjacent to the School for Peace following the fire, Neveh Shalom, September 7, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Jack Khoury

There was a fire overnight between Sunday and Monday at the library adjacent to the Jewish-Arab School for Peace in Neveh Shalom, a village between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which firefighters suspect was deliberately set.

Last week there was a fire at another adjacent building that hosts Israeli-Palestinian dialogue programming, and arson is suspected in that case as well.

Village residents suspect the fires were the result of the school’s decision to rescind the admission of 15 Arab students from Lod and Ramle, a step that the school administration said it took to establish a more even balance between the school’s Arab and Jewish students.

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Neveh Shalom has a mixed Arab-Jewish population, and the school there is one of the few in the country where Jews and Arabs attend school together in Hebrew and Arabic.

The library fire at Neveh Shalom, September 7, 2020.
The library fire at Neveh Shalom, September 7, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Most of the school’s students live in communities near Neveh Shalom and in most years, the school has had a relatively equal number of Jewish and Arab students. This school year, however, 30 incoming Arab students applied for 1st grade but only 10 Jews – apparently because another regional school opened in Yad Hashmona, to the east. Sources involved in the issue said the school had planned to open a second 1st grade class but parents of the incoming Jewish students refused to have their children separated into two classrooms.

The school administration rejected other options, such as creating an exclusively Arab 1st grade class in the hope that Jews would join in later years, or combining children from one than one grade level in a single classroom. In the end, it was decided to have one 1st grade class, to which only some Arab applicants were accepted. On August 18, two weeks before the opening of school, the school administration notified the parents of 15 Arab children, mostly from Lod and Ramle, that their children’s admission had been withdrawn.

“It’s hard to describe how painful this is,” Arab parents wrote in a letter to the school, to the Mateh Yehuda regional council, which is the local government in the area, and to the Education Ministry. “The decision is severe and violates the school’s vision and principles.”

Yossi Epstein, the Jerusalem district legal adviser for the Education Ministry, wrote to the parents in response that the school’s admission criteria gave priority to residents of Neveh Shalom and the Mateh Yehuda region and children who had attended the school’s kindergarten or who have siblings at the school. “We regret the situation that resulted and understand the disappointment and frustration,” he added.

The School for Peace at Neveh Shalom, September 7, 2020.
The School for Peace at Neveh Shalom, September 7, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Mateh Yehuda regional fire station is maintained by the Border Police, where a source confirmed that the fire was caused by arson, although investigators are pursuing a number of possible directions in their probe of the incident.

Maya Lan, whose daughter attends the school, told Haaretz that she didn’t think the fire was related to the denial of admission to the Arab 1st graders. “A parent who places a child in a binational school doesn’t fit the profile of someone who would torch the school. We’ve met them, and none of them were of such a [mindset]. At the moment, what bothers us is that our children are not safe. There have been two arson incidents in four days, and we don’t have the feeling that anyone is protecting them,” she said.

The mother of one child who was refused admission has challenged the decision in the Jerusalem District Court. “Would it be conceivable for a school principal to say there are too many ‘Moroccans’ or ‘Russians’ or ‘Ethiopians’ in a class and claim that this disrupts some sort of balance?” the petition, which was filed by attorney Alexander Oberfeld, asks. The authorities involved have an obligation to give primary consideration to preventing discrimination, the petition claims. “Cancelling admission to a child based on ‘lofty’ considerations of a lack of balance between Jewish and Arab students is covert racism.”

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