Forward Thinking

Who's To Blame for Ziad Abu Ein's Death?

By Ben Sales

(JTA) — Here’s what we know: Israel Defense Forces soldiers grabbed Palestinian Authority minister Ziad Abu Ein during a scuffle at a West Bank protest and tear-gassed him. He died en route to treatment at a Ramallah hospital.

Abu Ein, the P.A.’s minister in charge of opposition to Israel’s West Bank settlements and security barrier, was participating in a protest Wednesday near Ramallah against Adei Ad, an Israeli outpost. The protest escalated into an altercation with Israeli troops, who then grabbed and tear-gassed Abu Ein.

Everything else is up for dispute, from what happened at the protest (was Abu Ein hit by a rifle butt?) to how he died to who is responsible. Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian doctors present at Abu Ein’s autopsy disagreed on the cause of death.

The Israeli doctors, noting the minister’s high blood pressure and poor health, say he died of a heart attack caused by stress. They say that his being grabbed by the neck accelerated the heart failure. But Palestinian doctors say he died from inhaling tear gas, from being struck at the protest and from a delay in getting medical attention.

This much is clear: Both sides agree that Abu Ein died as a result of the altercation with the IDF. They just disagree on whether the IDF is responsible. And that disagreement has caused an escalating crisis between Israel and the P.A. that threatens to ignite the territory.

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4 Stories from Zochrot Truth Commission On 1948

By Naomi Zeveloff

Palestinians mark the anniversary of the 1948 Nakba or ‘Day of Catastrophe’ / Getty Images

Is Israeli society ready to reckon with 1948? On Wednesday, Zochrot, an Israeli organization devoted to raising awareness about the Nakba — when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled by Jewish forces during Israel’s founding war — held its first public “truth commission” featuring the testimonies of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Bedouins who lived through the events of 1948 and beyond.

The commission, held in a hotel in Beersheba, focused on the Negev from 1948 to 1960. Zochrot was specifically looking at the David Ben Gurion-ordered conquest of the area to oust Egyptian forces in 1948 and the subsequent Israeli army deportation of Negev Bedouin through the 1950s. While Zochrot has taken hours of testimony on the topic in the past, yesterday’s event was the first of its kind open to the public, and a rare opportunity to hear from what the organization described as “witnesses.”

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No, Judaism Doesn’t Justify CIA Torture

By Jesse Lempel

Christian art depicting Jews being tortured in hell

Are the Jews somehow to blame for the CIA’s torture of detainees?

That’s what some want to know after yesterday’s release of the so-called “CIA Torture Report” by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The CIA is in the business of extracting secrets and then burying them deep in its bureaucratic pockets. So it was somewhat surreal yesterday when the agency was forced to publicly spill its guts in the 528-page Senate report (redacted from a still-classified 6,000-page version). Among the disturbing revelations: the tactics were both more brutal and less effective than the CIA had claimed; some interrogators were inexperienced and should have been “flagged” for violent tendencies; the program had no meaningful oversight; and the CIA systematically duped the media, Congress and even President Bush in exaggerating the tactics’ success.

Another startling scoop from the Senate report is that CIA lawyers cited the “Israeli example” as part of their legal rationale justifying torture, referring to the 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that allowed interrogators to exert “moderate physical pressure” in some circumstances. This has already caused a stir among some, including the website Electronic Intifada, and is bound to embolden those who see a Zionist finger behind all the world’s evils.

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I'm Jewish and Greek. Who Do I Root for On Hanukkah?

By Elizabeth Savage

Youth from Ioannina’s Greek community in traditional dress / Haaretz

They’ve switched on the window displays on Fifth Avenue, and the trees are for sale on the street corners, so I know I’m about to get asked the question: Do I miss Christmas? It’s a common question for a convert. But, despite a childhood full of Yuletides worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting, my answer is simple: just the opposite. I love Hanukkah and I’d trade Christmas for it in every respect. Except maybe one.

The reason is: I’m Greek. Or at least part Greek. My father’s family is from Sparta and loves the Greek Orthodox Church; my mother’s family is gingerbread-building, sugar-cookie-making WASP. To their credit, my parents have always been supportive of my choosing to become chosen, albeit a little confusedly.

But here’s my quandary: Hanukkah presents a pretty substantial identity conflict for someone who is both Greek and Jewish. The Festival of Lights, from the Jewish perspective, is not only about the miracle of oil lasting for eight nights, or the victory of light over darkness; it’s also about defeating the evil Hellenes. And from the Greek perspective, it was a bloody defeat served up by a ragtag group of Hebrews. The real battle of Hanukkah for me comes down to this: Is my Jewish self supposed to celebrate the defeat of my Spartan self? Am I destined to be a self-hating Greek?

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7 Israeli Laws America Should Pass Right Now

By Avi Bass

Life’s good when you’re floating in the Dead Sea / Thinkstock

Avital Burg’s recent post “If America Had Laws Like Israel” imagines an American parallel to Israel’s nation-state bill, and invites the reader to deplore what would happen if this bill became law here in the U.S.

Though this probably wasn’t the writer’s intention, the post got me thinking: If only America had laws like Israel!

During the six years that I lived in the Jewish state, I came to appreciate many of the Israeli laws designed to protect the little guy. Here are some outcomes of Israel’s laws that America sorely needs:

1) No early termination fees

Recent amendments to Israel’s Communications Law make it illegal for internet, cell phone and cable providers to penalize private customers for switching companies, even if they have signed on for long-term contracts. I’d love to see how AT&T and Verizon squirm in reaction to a law like this.

2) No civilian gun massacres

After several tragedies in the 1990s, Israel tightened its gun control. Today, relatively few Israelis own guns. Israel’s Firearms Law severely limits gun ownership. Even after satisfying extensive licensing procedures and background checks, licensed gun owners in Israel are only permitted to hold 50 bullets at one time. Fewer than 8% of Israelis own a gun, compared to 26% of Americans. Americans are 4.5 times more likely than Israelis to be killed by a gun.

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Is It Kosher To Fake a Photo for Peace?

By Kitra Cahana

Photographer Kitra Cahana on the hills overlooking Ramallah / Ed Ou

Editor’s Note: The Forward’s story “Iconic Mideast Photo Is a Fake — and Heartbreaking One at That” generated a lot of debate about the ethics of staging photographs. For added insight, we put a few questions to Kitra Cahana, a documentary photojournalist whose work appears frequently in National Geographic, The New York Times and other publications.

Tell us about your own experience as a photographer in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

For the past two years I’ve been working on a project about Palestinians married or in relationships with Israelis. Along with my colleague, Ed Ou, I’ve traveled across the West Bank and Israel, finding subjects who manage their relationships despite many hurdles on both sides. To prepare for this story we spent a month researching until we found subjects who were willing to let us photograph. It took time and journalistic prowess to find these genuine relationships. We could easily have hired two actors and told them to pretend to be in love, crossing back and forth between Israel and the West Bank illegally, but our audience would have learned nothing from those images. Once we had access, we spent weeks and even months with our subjects waiting for moments, natural moments, that would reveal deeper truths about the larger reality that our subjects and ultimately all Israelis and Palestinians are living in.

Have you ever been dismayed by people misappropriating your images online?

It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I don’t know a photographer who isn’t holding her breath, fearful of that day. The internet age has intensified those fears so much more — it heightens all of the potential dramas that can unfold. It makes me more cautious in my practice and in the images that I put into the world and online. There are images that I’ve taken that I don’t want published. Years ago I went to the Congo to do a story about rape as a weapon of war, but upon leaving, didn’t feel that as a journalist I understood enough about the context of the images when I took them. I have no intention of publishing those images.

So, is it unethical to stage photographs?

Each publication has its own line of ethics to follow, but by and large the industry standard in photojournalism is to document reality as you find it. There’s no doubt that our presence as journalists has an impact on the way subjects behave in front of the pen, recorder or camera, but our role is to minimize that impact. Reality, unposed, is beautiful — so rich, so full of nuance and psychological complexities, that to try to stage it ruins all the mystery of capturing something truthful.

With regards to the photograph in question, if, as the Forward reported, Ricki Rosen gave her archive to Corbis and the image was catalogued as “news” without an accompanying caption clearly indicating that it was a photo illustration, then that is an egregious error. It’s the caption that dictates how we’re supposed to read the photograph.

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The Iconic Mideast Photo That Isn't Fake

By Naomi Zeveloff

Debbi Cooper’s 1988 photo of an Israeli and a Palestinian actually features an Israeli and a Palestinian.

When I interviewed Ricki Rosen about her iconic — and completely staged — 1993 photo depicting a Palestinian boy and an Israeli boy, she reminded me of a similar picture taken by another Jerusalem photojournalist.

Debbi Cooper’s 1988 black and white picture is also of an Israeli and a Palestinian, but hers is real. In it, two young boys, one in a yarmulke and the other with a keffiyeh wrapped around his neck, smile shyly for the camera. Like Rosen’s photo, the picture has taken on a life of its own, and has been reproduced countless times, both with and without Cooper’s knowledge and permission. Today, the picture is an emotional topic for the 60-year-old photojournalist, who teared up when talking about it. “It makes me sad,” she said. “I just wish it could have brought peace.”

“We are in such dark times,” she added. “People come to me and tell me it gives them hope. But what do you do with hope?”

According to Cooper, the photograph was originally commissioned by the New Israel Fund for a full-page New York Times advertisement as the First Intifada was gaining steam. It was meant to illustrate the possibility of Jewish and Palestinian coexistence in wartime and was labeled with the caption “What’s Right With This Picture?”

Cooper had previously photographed dialogue groups in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, so it wasn’t a stretch for her to find two families who would be willing to appear in the photograph. She contacted Diane Greenberg, a longtime friend in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood who, with her husband, was active in the peace movement. Greenberg, an immigrant to Israel from Wales, arranged a meeting with a Palestinian family that they knew in Jerusalem’s Beit Safafa neighborhood. Cooper said that she spent about an hour with the families before she photographed their two sons, who had met for the first time that day.

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Eric Garner and Moshe Twersky Bound by History

By Phil Getz

Getty Images

As I sit at my desk in a modern office building in lower Manhattan, the chants of angry protestors below grow louder. “I — can’t — breathe,” they shout, echoing the haunting final words of Eric Garner, whose death by asphyxiation I saw on video the day it occurred.

It was in that very spot, just over two weeks ago, in front of the same computer screen, that I learned of the horrific massacre in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. The same spot where, also on the day of attack, I saw the photographs of men in blood-drenched prayer shawls sprawled across the reddened floor of a synagogue.

And as the shouts grow stronger, I realize just how similar we are. It has become a cliché in this country to note the disintegration of black-Jewish relations, not to mention its causes, and perhaps even more so to lament it. Gone are the days when Jews and black folks suffer the same discrimination, prohibited from entry to the same restaurants and public pools. But the images of recent weeks trigger the most terrifying episodes in our respective histories, reminding us that it is in the imagery of our past that we have often found commonality.

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Farewell Philologos

By Jane Eisner


Week in and week out, for 24 years, the person known as Philologos has graced our pages with an erudite, engaging and often surprising column about language. About Yiddish, English and Hebrew, French, Polish, Latin and Greek, Aramaic and Circassian and just about any other tongue humans have spoken.

Ostensibly, Philologos answered readers questions about the use and abuse of a word or phrase. But the columns were about so much more than semantics.

They taught us about how words, written and spoken, reflect cultural values and behaviors; indeed, one can trace human development through the way certain words changed, combined or distinguished themselves from one another over time.

There were political points to be made, as well, and Philologos never shied away from expressing a personal opinion, whether about ISIS or Israeli policy, slyly wrapped in linguistic analysis.

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Huge Israeli Arms Buy Nobody's Talking About

By Yael Even Or

The F-35 fighter jet is Israel’s latest big purchase / Wikipedia

The Israeli parliament has become a turbulent place in the past few weeks — even more so than usual. What with key politicians getting fired, there’s been lots of chatter about what this shake-up will mean for the Israel-U.S. relationship. But it may not mean very much at all.

It’s worth noting that while coalition disputes (supposedly) led to the dissolution of the parliament this week, the cabinet still functioned well enough to approve on Sunday a $2-billion deal to purchase stealth fighter jets from American aerospace company Lockheed Martin.

The cabinet authorized this purchase of 14 F-35As following an agreement between American and Israeli defense chiefs in October. This is just one part of a long-term deal that includes a 2010 purchase of 19 warplanes (which won’t arrive until 2016) for $2.75 billion, and maintains the option of purchasing 17 more in the future.

If the deal, which all together entails 50 jets, is completed, Lockheed Martin has agreed to purchase $6 billion worth of security equipment from Israel. It will also give Israel comfortable credit conditions.

The jet in question — the celebrated F-35 Lightning II — is a fighter aircraft designed for missions that have typically been the realm of more specialized aircrafts, like strikes and interceptions. But it is still unclear, in the Israeli context, what operational need it actually fills. No wonder then that some Israeli ministers strongly — but unsuccessfully — opposed approving this huge purchase. Somehow, this major deal barely got a mention in all the media discussion of the controversial issues over which the coalition announced failure.


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I Don't Want To Feel 'Safe' at Eric Garner’s Expense

By Ayelet Cohen

A demonstrator cries while protesting the Eric Garner grand jury decision / Getty Images

(JTA) — The words of Leviticus (19:6) admonish us not to “stand idly by while the blood of your neighbor is shed.” These words should sting our ears and shock our conscience in the wake of a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a New York City police officer who killed Eric Garner after using a chokehold, a long-prohibited technique, in attempting to arrest him for a simple misdemeanor — selling single, untaxed cigarettes.

Garner’s fatal encounter with police, including his cries for help, were documented on video. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. Can we imagine the likelihood of a similar outcome had Eric Garner been white? If he had been Jewish?

As a New Yorker and a rabbi, I believe the unfolding of these tragic events should disturb us on three levels. First, for the failure of justice in the grand jury decision. Second, for the discriminatory application of the system of “broken windows” policing, which led to the altercation that ended Eric Garner’s life. Third, because as Jews, we know what it means to walk in fear because of who we are, and we must empathize with anyone who faces discrimination today.

Broken windows policing is based on a theory that punishing minor quality-of-life infractions may help prevent more serious crimes. But whatever its merits, the policy is enforced with dramatic inconsistency in white neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color.

“There shall be one law for all of you,” insists Leviticus (24:22). Yet as applied by the NYPD, broken windows policing endangers many New Yorkers of color in the name of protecting others.

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Why I'm (Reluctantly) Voting Against BDS at Berkeley

By Raphael Magarik

Pro-Palestinian demonstrator argues with pro-Israeli demonstrator at UC Berkeley / Getty Images

On Thursday, my union as a graduate student at Berkeley, UAW 2865, is going to vote on a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) resolution against Israel. I’m going to vote “no,” although I oppose the occupation and support selective, non-BDS branded boycotts targeting the occupation.

I vote this way ambivalently. The Israeli occupation is more than 45 years long and involves deep injustice, and it ought to be resisted. One may not oppose BDS without offering an alternative vision for ending the occupation — my vision involves selective boycotts, investment in progressive elements in Israeli society and politics, political lobbying in DC. But I cannot sign onto the BDS proposal, and I hope that other union members will also vote “no.”

Here’s why I don’t think BDS is a good path. First, I worry the boycott will be counterproductive. An academic boycott, in particular, is likely to hit hardest precisely the sector of Jewish Israeli society from which the most trenchant criticism of the occupation comes — and I find it hard to believe an effective institutional boycott will not have reverberations for individual academics, especially given the examples of cultural boycotts of Israel we’ve seen so far. Especially in the sciences, individual careers, collaborations and institutions are deeply entangled — but even in the humanities, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) boycott guidelines hit study abroad relationships, joint conference funding and so-called “normalization projects” (i.e., dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians that does not presuppose conformity to the BDS position).

On a larger level, perceived world hostility to Israel drives the Israeli right; when National Home right-wing politician Naftali Bennett posts a video of him hectoring foreign journalists, it plays very well. BDS may well create the hard-right, recalcitrant Israel it imagines already exists. And knowing that people like Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman are reaching out to partners like Putin and to the Hindu nationalist government in India, we in the United States and Europe need to think strategically about how to pressure the Israeli government without pushing it into worse configurations.

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AP vs. Matti Friedman — Fight Gets Ugly

By Raffi Wineburg

Journalists and Palestinian protesters take cover from Israeli fire at a demonstration / Getty Images

(JTA) — Whatever the circumstances surrounding Matti Friedman’s departure from The Associated Press in 2011, it’s safe to say he’s not returning anytime soon.

The former reporter and editor with the international wire service’s Jerusalem bureau made waves in August with a remarkably popular Tablet essay in which he argued that the Western media had a “hostile obsession with Jews.” In a second essay, published Sunday in The Atlantic, Friedman insisted that Western journalists depict the Jews of Israel “more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure,” and accused AP staffers of a number of questionable journalistic practices.

While the first essay prompted a slew of raves and rebuttals, including a response from former AP Jerusalem Bureau Chief Steve Gutkin, the second was apparently too much for the media giant. The AP shot back at its former employee Monday with an online statement one day after his piece went live on The Atlantic’s website.

“Over the past three months, in one media forum after another, Matti Friedman … has eagerly offered himself as an authority on international coverage of Israel and the Palestinian territories, repeatedly referencing the AP. His arguments have been filled with distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies, both about the recent Gaza war and more distant events,” the statement began.

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News Quiz: What is the Hottest New Show on TV?

By Lenore Skenazy

Chicken Fat Fondue? Mothers Against Drunk Davening? Hamas-achusetts? What the heck is going on? Take the quiz and find out!

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Israel's New Push To Keep Africans Behind Bars

By Yael Even Or

Asylum-seekers Detained in Israel’s Desert from Jewish Daily Forward on Vimeo.

Israel’s Parliament has passed a new law aimed at keeping African immigrants behind bars — and a controversial jail to house them open — beyond a deadline set by the country’s highest court.

The Knesset by a 43-20 vote approved an initial legislative step for a new law that mandates three months in prison for African asylum-seekers who enter Israel without documentation and a year and eight months more in the spartan Holot detention center, which Israel euphemistically refers to as an “open facility.”

If it passes two more hurdles, the new law will permit Israel to keep more than 2,000 African detainees imprisoned in Holot — and likely to jail many more.

It is the third time lawmakers have sought to amend to the nation’s so-called anti-infiltration law. Earlier amendments were twice struck down by Israel’s High Court of Justice on the grounds they were unconstitutional.

Advocates say Israel should offer a haven to the refugees, most of whom are fleeing authoritarian regimes in the Sudan (many hail from the genocide-ravaged Darfur province) and Eritrea, considered one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

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In Berlin, Jews and Muslims Fight for Each Other

By Yermi Brenner

Salaam-Schalom organizes a Jewish-Muslim human chain event in Neukollen / Ömer Sefa Baysal

This past summer, Armin Langer, a 24-year-old rabbinical student in Berlin, came to speak at the Sehitlik mosque in Neukoelln, a district of the German capital with a large Muslim population. Langer is the co-founder of the Salaam-Schalom Initiative, a Neukoelln-based intercultural dialogue group. His pre-scheduled presentation at the mosque, to announce Salaam-Schalom’s new campaign, took place on June 26, just as the violence between Israelis and Palestinians was escalating.

“I thought it was very courageous on his part to go on the stage and introduce himself as a Jewish person,” says Denis Mert Mercan, 26, a devout Muslim who lives in Berlin and was at Sehitlik mosque that day. “And I thought it was an amazing idea that the Jews would defend Muslims and Muslims would defend Jews in terms of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”

The campaign Langer was introducing was a series of posters against anti-Muslim prejudice, to be displayed on the streets of Neukoelln. He explained that the goal of Salaam-Schalom is for Jewish and Muslim Berliners to collaborate, battling all forms of racism at once.

Salaam-Schalom’s grassroots attempt to bridge the gap between Jews and Muslims is happening at a time when Germany is experiencing a wave of anti-Semitism that’s partly rooted in Muslim communities. This summer, during the Israel-Hamas war, a Palestinian immigrant threw a petrol bomb on a synagogue in the town of Wuppertal, and hate speech against Jews appeared in Berlin demonstrations against Israel’s operation in Gaza.

“We are not soldiers standing against each other on the front. We are average people living in the same city,” said Langer, a Hungarian Jew who attended a yeshiva in Jerusalem and moved to Berlin to continue his religious studies. “Of course we all feel sorry for what’s going on there and we have relatives and friends in Gaza and in Israel and in the West Bank. But maybe we can build up something more peaceful here in Berlin.”

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Why I'm Boycotting the 'Exodus' Movie — It's Racist

By Sigal Samuel

Christian Bale plays Moses in “Exodus.” What’s wrong with this picture?

On November 25 — one day after the Ferguson grand jury decision sparked a national outcry over race relations in this country — “Variety” ran an interview with Ridley Scott, justifying the director’s decision to cast white actors in the key roles of his new movie, “Exodus.”

If you’re thinking, charitably, that perhaps Scott just never got the memo about how people in ancient Egypt (which is, you know, part of Africa) weren’t exactly alabaster-skinned, think again. He’s fully aware that he whitewashed his movie — oh, except for the servants and thieves, for which roles he did see fit to pick black actors — and he’s not even sorry about it. Not even one bit:

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

I don’t buy this for a second, and neither should you.

Scott is not exactly making his directorial debut here. Between “Gladiator” and “G.I. Jane” and “Thelma and Louise” and “Alien,” he’s been around the block a few times. I’m pretty sure that just stating his own name at this point would be enough to get a movie financed — handsomely.

Of course, there is racism ingrained in Hollywood (and everywhere else), and so it’s often tempting to fall prey to a self-fulfilling prophecy: directors assume people will be thrown off by a movie with black actors in starring roles, and so those actors don’t get cast, and so the cycle continues. That’s probably why “Variety” defended Scott, mentioning that people are already up in arms about his movie’s whitewashed casting “no matter that the same could be said of “The Passion of the Christ,” “Noah,” “The Ten Commandments” and virtually any other big-budget Bible movies.”

But the fact that whitewashing is so prevalent in Hollywood is not a justification for whitewashing. If anything, it’s the reason why a director like Scott — an established voice, not a novice still desperate to burnish credentials — has the responsibility to buck that trend.

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School of Jerusalem's Shattered Dreams

By Ben Sales

(JTA) — Last week, the students of the Max Rayne Hand In Hand Jerusalem School were running through the hallways during recess, playing soccer in a courtyard and yelling to each other in Hebrew and Arabic.

Last night, they were helping rearrange the school after an arson attack.

Hand in Hand, Jerusalem’s only Jewish-Arab primary and high school, was vandalized and torched Saturday night by Jewish extremists, who wrote slogans like “death to Arabs,” “down with assimilation” and “there is no coexistence with cancer” on the school’s walls. They set fire to two of the school’s first-grade classrooms, gathering schoolbooks and class materials in a pile and burning them. Jerusalem’s municipality responded swiftly, putting out the fire and sending teams to clean up the graffiti and classroom damage.

The school’s students and community are now figuring out how to overcome the attack during a year that — owing to a string of violent attacks in Jerusalem — has already been tougher than usual. This is the second time in about a month that vandals have graffitied “death to Arabs” on the school.

In a JTA profile of the school last week — which its principal called a “greenhouse” for shared Arab-Jewish living — students said that relations between Arab and Jewish students have been especially fraught. Students recalled tense debate in class and said that current events are a constant topic of conversation — but that they nonetheless manage to maintain friendships.

Noa Yammer, the school’s communications coordinator, told JTA that last night’s attack has served to draw the students together in opposition to racism and violence. On the night of the attack, 10th-grade students helped clear out one of their classrooms so first-graders could use it until their room was repaired.

“There’s a double reaction of feeling scared and feeling solidarity with each other,” Yammer told JTA Sunday morning. “The kids were feeling comforted by the presence of all the other kids and the desire to help in any way they can. It’s not an attack on Arabs or Jews, but an attack on the fact that we’re living together.”

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Why Did Israel’s President Just Oppose Bibi's Bill?

By Ben Sales

Getty Images

(JTA) Reuven Rivlin just did the one thing Israel’s president — a largely ceremonial post — doesn’t usually do: He publicly, and vehemently, opposed a specific bill endorsed by the government and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Addressing a conference in Eilat, Rivlin lambasted the controversial Nation-State Law, advanced this week by Israel’s Cabinet and which seeks to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in law.

Supporters of the law say it merely places the two sides of Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character on equal footing and reinforces the state’s Jewishness against its enemies. But the law’s opponents say it gives primacy to Israel’s Jewish side. They point to the absence of the word “equality” in the bill and note that the bill fails to guarantee collective rights to Israel’s minorities.

Rivlin made clear which side of the debate he’s on.

“Ladies and gentlemen, such a hierarchical approach, which places Jewishness before democracy, misses the great significance of the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence, which combined the two elements together without separating them,” he said. “This is the beating heart of the State of Israel, a state established on two solid foundations: nationhood on the one hand and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down.”

It’s not surprising that Rivlin opposes the bill; he’s long been a crusader for democratic and minority rights. But it is surprising that he came out against the government so publicly. The president’s job is to welcome dignitaries, represent the state at such functions as funerals, and guide the formation of a new government following elections.

The president is not a political position, per se, and he’s not supposed to get involved in legislative battles. Rivlin himself stressed that point in an interview with the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz before he was elected in June. He was responding to a question about his opposition to a Palestinian state.

“I won’t intervene in Knesset decisions,” he told Horovitz.”The president is a bridge to enable debate, to reduce tensions, to alleviate frictions.”

So why did he intervene here? A source in the president’s office, who wished to remain anonymous, said Rivlin sees this bill as not just any piece of proposed legislation but fears it will affect the core nature of Israel’s democracy.

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News Quiz: Who You Gonna Call?

By Lenore Skenazy

Getty Images

Barbie and Waldo rub shoulders in this week’s quiz, along with CNN, which gets it wrong. Really wrong.

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