Thousands of teenagers from a host of youth movements convened at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square Sunday night to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, on November 4, 1995. Organizers estimate that there were some 15,000 participants.
Among the movements participating in the gathering – dubbed the “Israeli Assembly” ("ha'asefa hayisraelit") – were members of Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed (Working and Studying Youth) wearing dark-blue shirts with red laces; of the kibbutz-officiated Hashomer Hatzair, garbed in the same blue shirts with white laces; of the Bnei Akiva religious movement, in their light-blue shirts; and the Israel Scouts, wearing their khaki uniforms.
As the event got underway, mixed groups of youths sat in circles on the ground, to which they had been assigned in advance via text messages on their phones. The participants embarked on discussions of a list of issues they had received, relating to human rights and Israeli democracy. Elsewhere in the square were groups of adults, debating similar topics
One subject addressed in the teenagers' dialogue circles was the boundaries of public discourse – a hot-button issue in the age of the internet. Strewn on the ground were pieces of paper bearing slogans in Hebrew and Arabic from online posts, such as “Let them go back to where they came from,” “All leftists are traitors,” and “A woman should know her place.”
The participants were asked to paste stickers in the form of an icon on the pieces of paper, reflecting their feelings about the slogans – to what degree they were in agreement, or were offended or confused by them. The provocative nature of the statements didn’t necessarily inspire arguments, however.
“We agreed on everything really quickly. We agreed that making generalizations is wrong,” one Scout shrugged.
One relatively lively circle delved into other controversial issues that perturb 16- and 17-year-olds. “A safe space needs to be created,” said a member of Hanoar Halomed. “Some kids don’t want to talk about sexuality, so a safe space is created for them where it isn’t talked about. It depends whom you talk with.” His group then moved onto reading the Declaration of Independence together.
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This was the fourth year the Israeli Assembly was held, organized by the youth movements in conjunction with Tel Aviv's Yitzhak Rabin Center and the Jewish National Fund. The declared purpose: to work toward a strong, healthy civilian society and never to forget what can happen when separatism and hatred raise their heads, according to the Assembly's (Hebrew) website.
'Culture of argument'
Also in the square were circles of youth movement "graduates" and other members of the public who created their own dialogue circles – adults who, in contrast to the younger crowd, remember Rabin well.
Leading the discussion among the older groups were a number of well-known figures, including veteran journalists Gadi Sukenik and Ya'akov Eilon; Adina Bar-Shalom, an ultra-Orthodox social activist, and Miriam Peretz, an educator, two of whose sons were killed during their military service.
Rabbi Benny Perl, principal of a national-religious high school in Tel Aviv, kicked off the discussion in circle No. 24 with a Talmud-inspired lesson.
“Jewish culture is a culture of argument,” he said. “The entire Talmud consists of argument. Since we returned to Israel, we have lost our ability to hold arguments. When you hear the news today, you hear people who want to listen mainly to themselves.”
As though scripted, a heckler interrupted the group, declaring: “Rabin deserted Israel and the Shin Bet [security service] deserted Rabin.” Shooed away, the heckler went on to the next circle as Perl resumed talking. “He was a plant – to prove your point,” one of the participants joked.
Perl asked whether a debate can be held between people with differing opinions without any side having to give up their views. One member of the circle noted that in Talmudic times, people had respect for one another – but today they don’t.
In his group of relatively young participants, musician and civics teacher Yuval Mendelson tried to lead the conversation in the direction of current affairs. “What’s happening today is like then, the time of the murder,” he noted. “That should worry every law-abiding citizen.”
Mendelson spoke about the early signs of incitement and suppression of free speech. "When election campaigns portray journalists as enemies, the next stage is spitting at them – and the stage after that is a bullet. These things need to be identified,” he said.
Guitar in hand, Mendelson ended the discussion with a song he had written – “the only children’s song about Rabin’s assassination,” he called it – which went, roughly: “In a big town square hundreds of thousands / A Dunkin’ Donuts branch is also jam-packed / And a Yemenite student aims and fires / and since then there is no more Dunkin’ Donuts.”
The mood in the dialogue circle led by Ethiopian Israeli activist Avi Yalou was grimmer. One participant said she identifies with the struggle of his community, but feels they were wrong to block roads and hurt people – a reference to the demonstrations this summer over the fatal shooting of an unarmed Ethiopian teenager by an off-duty police officer.
“In the short run, the violent protest did damage,” Yalou agreed. “People said we had 'lost them' and latent racism burst out in all its glory. But in the big picture the protest created pressure. [People] understood that we were prepared to lose support in favor of preventing the next murder.”
Television anchorwoman Ayala Hasson was late and the group she was slated to moderate seemed lost. One participant joked they should start a discussion about the state of lettuce in the territories. Others shrugged. Hasson fiinally arrived and talked about the days prior to Rabin’s assassination and the media coverage of the trial of his killer, Yigal Amir. Her microphone didn’t work. “This is just like on Channel 1,” she quipped. She was given a new mike.