It started out as a celebration of democracy. About 1,000 high-school students from all over the country sat for four hours on Sunday at Tel Aviv University, with party leaders addressing them all for 20 minutes. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid was there; MK Yuli Edelstein (Likud) represented the prime minister; Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon and Zionist Camp coleader MK Isaac Herzog were also present. Shas was represented by chairman Aryeh Deri; Meretz by chairwoman MK Zahava Gal-On. Some speakers were greeted with cheers, especially Kahlon, and Herzog when he called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to go home. Some, like Gal-On, were booed. Breaks were accompanied by lively debate at stands that the parties had set up.
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The event is part of a clear trend in this election: courting young, first-time voters, with party heads frequently and regularly visiting schools.
Things heated up, however, when the day's last speaker, Habayit Hayehudi chairman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, began his address. When he talked about cars being stolen in the south, and that “you can’t go to neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and Arab villages,” a large group of Arab students walked out.
A smaller group of Arab students had left earlier, after they learned that the chairman of the Joint List, Iman Odeh, would not be attending although he had been invited, and that no other Arab representative would be there instead.
Bennett shouted toward the group, “The way of the left is to run away. Run!” (See story, page 4.)
Kippa-wearing students then called out their support for Bennett. The Arab students who had left returned, accompanied by Meretz activists, and began shouting protests at Bennett and moving toward the stage.
“Come on, shout that I’m a fascist. I like to hear it, but the people of Israel are with us!” said Bennett, adding, “True, in the universities the lecturers are with you. In the courts the judges are with you. But you have one failure: the people of Israel is strong and connected to its heritage, and the people of Israel lives!”
An organizer who took the mike failed to restore calm, and the organizers began to remove the students gradually as Bennett continued his speech.
Tom Cohen, a Meretz activist, said, “The Arab kids walked out in the middle of Bennett’s speech. They said Bennett was saying all the Arabs are thieves. We felt that, as Meretz people, we had to stand by them. It’s not fair that a student comes to an activity organized by the Education Ministry and a former [sic] minister calls his parents thieves and no one stops him.”
Mohammed Darawshe, deputy head of the Student Council of the village of Iksal, near Nazareth, was among the students who walked out. “At first it was fun and we respected all the speakers and nobody insulted the Arabs,” he said, before noting that “nobody stopped” Bennett insulting them. “We can’t sit still when we are insulted.”
The Education Ministry's director general had issued a directive regarding respect for the boundaries of political discourse, recommending that a variety of opinions be aired.
The ministry’s head of civics studies, Dana Friedman, said, “What happened with Bennett is something that could happen. We told the candidates and the kids that we expect certain things – such as not to boo and not to walk out. What was nice in all this was that Jewish students also walked out on Bennett’s speech and said they didn’t feel comfortable when others were insulted.”
Tomer Lotan, director of Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, which sponsored the event, said, “I didn’t think things would get so inflamed. I was glad it happened at the end and didn’t ruin the event.”