Blich High School in Ramat Gan, Israel, is famous for holding mock elections ahead of every national vote. As part of this tradition, the school invites members of all the political parties to speak to students.
According to the school principal, Hila Romesh, the idea behind the mock elections is simple — it’s meant to promote values like pluralism, democracy and freedom of expression, and to invite students to hear firsthand from representatives of each party.
As Israel prepares for the next election in November — its fifth election in less than four years — Blich High School has been, as usual, hosting various politicians to speak. And this past week, controversy erupted across the country over the far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the school.
Why did one politician’s visit cause so much controversy? Ben-Gvir is a current Knesset member and the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, which is running with the Religious Zionism party in the upcoming election.
Many consider Ben-Gvir’s views to be extremist and racist. He is an ardent follower of the late popular and notoriously polarizing Rabbi Meir Kahane.
In 2007, Ben-Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism for carrying a sign that read, “Expel the Arab enemy.” Up until a few years ago, Ben-Gvir had a photo of Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, hanging in his living room.
When Ben-Gvir arrived at the school, about 30 students welcomed him by chanting the anti-Arab slogan, “May your village burn.” Meanwhile, dozens of left-wing activists also gathered to protest against his visit, including MK Gilad Kariv of the Labor Party.
His visit, the protests, and the anti-Arab chants led to a bigger debate in Israel over whether Ben-Gvir should have been included, and where to draw the lines in political discussions.
Should there be limits on the political discourse that is allowed in a school or community, and if so, what should those limits be? Was inviting Ben-Gvir to speak an act of democracy or was it morally wrong to give him this platform?
Diversity of perspectives
Israelis had different opinions on these questions. The principal of Blich High School, Hila Romesh, defended the school’s decision to host the far-right politician, noting that Arab Joint List leader Ayman Odeh was also invited to speak.
“As an educational institution we are committed to the value of pluralism and freedom of expression that are fundamental to democratic government,” she wrote in a letter to parents.
Romesh explained her thinking on who should be included: If someone is an elected member of the Knesset, or legally allowed to run for Knesset, then that person should be allowed to visit the school and participate in the mock elections.
Additionally, Romesh argued that excluding politicians on the extremes would be to ignore important political trends in the country. “Turning a blind eye to these processes will not help the students cope with the complex Israeli reality,” she wrote.
The mayor of Ramat Gan, Carmel Shama HaCohen, expressed his support for the school’s decision, emphasizing that Ben-Gvir is a sitting member of the Knesset.
“We [must] respect the right to choose [elected officials], to be elected, and freedom of speech,” the mayor said in an interview on Israeli radio. “These three values permitted no other conclusion than to let Ben-Gvir speak as long as he does not incite and does not introduce racism.”
Meanwhile, Likud MK Galit Distel praised the principal for her “firm stand in favor of freedom of expression. I salute her for the courage to maintain the democratic principles in the face of the brutal and dark attack of the left.”
The Jerusalem Post editorial board expressed their support of his visit as well, asserting that “Freedom of speech means that even those whose opinions you find appalling have the right to express them.”
However, others insisted that the school made the wrong decision and that Ben-Gvir’s views go beyond the lines of acceptable free speech. “The decision of Blich High School’s management [to include Ben-Gvir] is extremely disturbing,” Labor Party leader Meirav Michaeli tweeted.
“This is not about education on democracy and a culture of debate — this is a moral and educational bankruptcy,” Labor MK Gilad Kariv, who attended the protest against Ben-Gvir’s visit at the school, said.
“The Israeli right has enough talented speakers, and we should not invite a person who has put a picture of a murderer and terrorist [Baruch Goldstein] on the wall of his house,” he added.
Meanwhile, although Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzno did not clearly state his position on whether Ben-Gvir should have been invited, he did say in an interview with Ynet Radio that “Ben-Gvir is a violent and dangerous person with racist attitudes. He is a convicted supporter of terrorism and an instigator against anyone who does not look like him or think like him.”
The youth group of the left-wing Meretz party, Meretz Youth, voiced their opposition to Ben-Gvir’s visit, saying in a statement that “Kahanism and racism are not legitimate opinions in the political system. They are violent views that threaten to destroy Israeli democracy.”
“Ben-Gvir is not legitimate. Teenagers do not need to hear terrible racism in their school directed at Arabs, LGBTQ [people] and leftists,” the group added.
Ben-Gvir responded to their statement: “I am full of pride for the high school students at Blich for standing strong against the crazy Left…The shouting of the demented left will not deter me. With God’s help, we will win, form a fully right-wing government, and bring sanity back to the country.”
Although Israelis expressed different views on whether Ben-Gvir should have been invited, most of them condemned the anti-Arab chants from Ben-Gvir’s supporters.
The school principal said that the students who shouted “May your village burn down” will be “dealt with educationally,” adding that the protesters who came from outside the school and called those students “Nazis” must also be “dealt with.”
As for Ben-Gvir’s speech and Q&A, Haaretz reported that many students who were interested in hearing what he had to say left disappointed. “Students at the Ramat Gan school got a lesson from a practiced politician who’s experienced at sweeping aside the hardest questions with sugar-coated answers and a friendly countenance,” the newspaper reported.
“He didn’t answer anything,” one 12th-grade student told Haaretz. “He wanted to create campaign propaganda. He knows that we’re about to vote, so he took from his messaging playbook what he needed to say.”
Originally Published Sep 15 2022 01:19PM EDT