On the Bilingual School, Racist Arsonists & the Problem with “HaTikvah”

I debated for a little while whether to turn my Facebook status from this morning, which I wrote in Hebrew, into a more filled out blobpost in English. Here’s why I hesitated:

1. It felt specifically like it was targeting a fairly narrow segment of the Hebrew-speaking Israeli Left.

2. More than that, I admit, I was worried about coming off as “too critical” of other parts of the Left (or Left-ish, we’ll get to that), and as pedantic and nitpicky, especially in times like these, when there is so little public dissent.

3. It felt like too much effort.

Here are the reasons why I ultimately decided to translate/elaborate/write this post:

1. My conversation-partners are not and cannot be only members of the Hebrew-speaking Israeli Left. This is, in part, because I do not believe that the Hebrew-speaking Israeli Left will end the occupation. I believe that some parts of the Hebrew-speaking Israeli left will play some role in ending the occupation. But I also believe that English-speaking communities, be they Palestinians, Diaspora Jews, Scandavian Human Rights advocates or whomever else, need to be invited into conversations that are taking place within the Israeli Left (if they are interested, of course, which they have no obligation to be). [The other part of this is, in all honesty, that my English is better and I prefer to write in English. So, there’s that, as well].

2. After seeing interesting conversation about my Facebook post in Hebrew, I do not think the piece is nitpicky or pedantic, but rather an illustration of a number of deep tactical and value-based disagreements.

3. It’s worth the effort that would otherwise probably be spent browsing Facebook all afternoon.

Very strong turnout, following a hideous event, for a complicated vigil.
Very strong turnout, following a hideous event, for a complicated vigil.

So here goes:

1. Last night, two classrooms in the Arab-Jewish Bilingual School in Jerusalem were set on fire. The attackers wrote “There is no coexistence with cancer,” and “Kahana was Right.” Ah, and they started the fire by gathering books into the middle of the classroom and lighting them on fire. No editorializing is needed to draw out the hideousness of this act.

2. After I moved to Jerusalem three and a half years ago, I went to volunteer in the Bilingual School (just once a week, and in the pre-school). I was really impressed by the place, and moved. In addition to all of the problems and complications present in the school -and there are many- it struck me as one of the best imaginable models regarding how to create some form of shared future in this place. And in the meantime, before we arrive at that future, the bilingual school is an excellent way to push back against the exclusivist Jewish hegemony of the State of Israel, which has many manifestations, one of them being the erasure of Arabic from the public sphere.

This reflection, posted on +972 Magazine, on the school, its community, and the events of the last day and night by Orly Noy, a writer and a parent to children in the school, is a beautiful illustration of much of this.

3. This morning, I went to a vigil in support of the school, organized by the Tag Meir – Light Tag Forum (a play on Tag Mekhir – Price Tag, a catchall term used to describe anything ranging from hate graffiti to burning of mosques (and schools) by random extremists). I returned from this vigil feeling conflicted. First and foremost, I am very grateful for the initiative, and it seems incredibly important for the kids at the school to see that there are many, many people who support them and their school: Over 200 people were at the vigil, including students from other Jerusalem schools like Hartman, Keshet, Kedma and Himmelfarb. There were also Members of Knesset, members of the Jerusalem Municipality, and religious leaders. All of this was wonderful, and worth noting.

And yet. The way in which the vigil was carried out was… very problematic, to put it gently. First off, there was not a single Palestinian speaker, and thus not a single speech in Arabic. Perhaps the organizers (the Light Tag Forum; the vigil was not organized by the school) couldn’t find a single Arab to speak. If that is the case though, that is still a failure on the Forum’s part, and one which they should have recognized, acknowledged and even extended the invitation ad hoc, asking if there was anyone in the crowd who would like to address the group in Arabic. Unfortunately, my feeling is that the Forum didn’t try and fail to bring Palestinians to speak. My feeling is that they didn’t try at all. The second thing that disturbed me about the vigil was the organizers’ insistence that it remain “non-political.” After a Member of Knesset from the Labor party gave a speech about how evicting families from their homes in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah and pushing forward the “Jewish State Law” connect to the recent attack, an organizer from the Light Tag Forum took the microphone and asked that all the speeches remain apolitical, and that people not bring their own agendas into the event.

The worst, though, was the end. During the vigil, I heard a Palestinian student who came out with a few friends to see what was going on turn to one of her classmates and say, in Arabic, “What is this? Why is there an Israeli flag here?” I empathized with her, and could imagine her feeling along the lines of “Is this a demonstration for or against us?” [As an illustration of this, a Palestinian friend posted on the Hebrew thread of my Facebook post that this past summer, he’d heard that there was a demonstration against the war in central West Jerusalem, and that he wanted to take part. He passed by, and saw a cluster of Israeli flags, and thought to himself that Lehava or other right-wingers must have chased Tag Meir – Light Tag away. “I didn’t dare look at them because I worried that they’d attack me because I am an Arab.” Only afterwards did he realize that this was the Light Tag’s demonstration].

And then, at the end, the group began to sing HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem.

As long as deep in the heart,
The soul of a Jew yearns,
And forward to the East
To Zion, an eye looks
Our hope will not be lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

This, in a demonstration meant to protest racism, exclusion, the violent targeting of Arabs. Not everyone sang, and it seemed like some of the singers were uncomfortable. It was truly galling to watch, though. I understand the desire to “reclaim,” to turn the anthem from something bellowed by right-wingers to something proudly sang by Left-ish-ists. But I don’t think everything is reclaimable, and especially not in this context. On a day in which a school has been set on fire because it promotes bilingual coexistence between Jews and Arabs, or “cancer,” as the attackers would call them, in a week in which the Prime Minister of Israel is trying hard to pass a bill that will formally proclaim that in the State of Israel, only Jewish lives fully matter, a few months after the horrors of “Operation Protective Edge,” during this swirling time of hatred and violence and narrowness and xenophobia and nationalism… To come to the Arab-Jewish bilingual school and organize a vigil only in Hebrew, to proclaim that the vigil is not political and that political messages are not welcome, and then to sing HaTikvah? It strikes me as offensive, as absurd, and as blind. HaTikvah cannot be part of a formula for true, equal coexistence and partnership between Jews and Arabs. The Jewish State Law is a logical followup from HaTikvah. Anti-Arab racism is a logical followup from the Jewish State Law.

So while the organizer’s efforts are to be noted, they need to work on seriously shifting their message and strategy if they are trying to advocate against racism and for a shared future. (Are they?) A vigil like this needs to be done gently, with humility, and if the organizers are interested in keeping political agendas out of the messaging, they should start with the very flag and anthem that lead so many Palestinians citizens and residents and non-citizen-non-residents of this country to feel marginalized, minimized, unwelcome and unwanted.


For the English-American version: Imagine if a white anti-racist group were to organize a vigil in Ferguson or where 12 year-old Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland, OH, and this vigil were to take place without a single black speaker, and conclude with The Star Spangled Banner.