The Best Response to Extremism

I just returned from a special trip to Israel; it was the annual Federation executive directors’ conference for intermediate-size Jewish Federations. Every seven to eight years, our conference is held in Israel. It was a fascinating conference and the dialogue was enriched by having colleagues bringing various perspectives about Israel, and our collective and philanthropic relationships to Israel, to the table. I am sure this trip will populate portions of columns to come.

This morning I was reminded of the intersection of this Israel trip and my HAKOL column of January 2015.

I wrote then about extremism in Israel, particularly about a group named Lehava. Lehava has sought to earn public legitimacy by harnessing fear of intermarriage as a pretext for plain racist hate speech. The Israeli Police Hate Crimes Division (probably the only one in the Middle East!) had just completed raids on the homes of Lehava leaders and arrested nine on suspicion of incitement of violent acts based on racist motivations.

Lehava’s activities vociferously and violently seek to disrupt anything that bridges Jews with non-Jews. But they go beyond social, cultural and religious; they are simply racist. Their tactics mirror those used by Nazis against Jews (and other minorities) and by segregationists against African Americans in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. As a Southerner, I recall the rhetoric calling for social and public segregation and using sexualization of Black men to incite fear.

Having been cited by various Israeli leaders and organizations as an illegitimate reflection of Jewish life in Israel, with repeated condemnation from the left, right, far left, far right, the crackdown against Lehava picked up after a bilingual school in Jerusalem was fire-bombed in November 2014. Portions of the building were sprayed with graffiti condemning the “mixing of the races” of Jews and Arabs.

On this recent trip to Israel, my January 2015 HAKOL column was the furthest from my thoughts. Until the second morning of the trip, when we arrived at the Yad B’Yad (Hand in Hand) School in Jerusalem. This is the school that was fire-bombed in 2014.

Regardless of the “solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jews and Arabs (both Christian and Muslim) will remain living together. Yad B’Yad is building a shared society by creating opportunities for Jews and Arabs to interact. Their mode is bilingual education with roughly an equal mix of Jewish and non-Jewish students. Courses are taught in both Hebrew and Arabic; students learn, and learn in, both languages; parents are equally engaged in the lives of the students and the school; and difficult discussions are reframed from a purely “conflict” lens to a prism of coexistence and validation of competing narratives.

Yad B’Yad currently operates integrated schools and communities in six locations with 1,578 Jewish and Arab students and more than 8,000 community members. The Jerusalem location, the largest, has grown from 20 students housed in one temporary, makeshift classroom, into their largest school, with a high school that has graduated six classes of seniors. The school’s 696 students form a microcosm of Jerusalem’s urban diversity, hailing from Jewish and Arab neighborhoods all over East and West Jerusalem. The student body is ethnically and religiously diverse — Arab Christian, Muslim, Armenian Christian, Druze, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi and Ethiopian Jews, as well as a growing number of observant Jewish families.

During our visit, we engaged with two seniors, Hagar and Sarah – one Israeli Arab and one Israeli Jew. They talked about the fire-bombing. They discussed how they review sensitive issues relating to Israel’s security and the treatment of Palestinians. They talked about how they interact with each other and how it has impacted their families. After leaving Yad B’Yad our bus discussion turned to our inability to identify which girl was Jewish and which was Muslim. Our bus was split. In the end it really did not matter, and that is why these schools are so important. These young girls cannot envision a future that does not benefit the other. In ways that hopefully cannot be undone, their lives are interrelated to each other.

To better understand this school and the school’s and community’s response to the fire-bombing, I urge you to review this 12-minute YouTube video (https://tinyurl.com/jx6q6uw) produced by an Israeli television news station.

Our trip focused on many conflicts in Israeli life: among secular and religious Jews, among Israelis and Palestinians and others. Every side is rife with its extremists, and that is what usually captures the news and captures the public’s attention. You can’t visit Yad B’Yad without feeling a sense of hope, without feeling a sense that reason will triumph over extremism.