Students at the Hebrew Reali High School in Haifa learned an important life lesson this week. To mark International Human Rights Day, which is Tuesday, the director of B’Tselem, Hagai El-Ad, was meant to address them. But when students and right-wing activists denounced the meeting, the principal of the school’s upper division, Mendi Rabinovitz, postponed it.
Without meaning to, Rabinovitz taught his pupils an instructive lesson on human rights: The struggle for Palestinian human rights in the occupied territories has many enemies in Israel. They are powerful, they practice political harassment and silencing, and they triumph solely because people capitulate to their threats.
It would behoove the students to save the letter Rabinovitz sent to them; in the future it might be taught in history lessons to understand the zeitgeist. “Giving a platform to pluralistic discourse in the school is part of the way we give the students tools to become familiar with various points of view,” he wrote, but then added, “The identity of the speakers invited does not constitute the school taking any position for or against their statements,” so as not, God forbid, to politically taint the school with the crime of identifying with the struggle for human rights.
The political persecution has succeeded, and people are afraid to be identified with a human rights organization. The bottom line is that the Reali principal taught his students to give in to bullies from the right that hound human rights organizations. “After we heard the voices of our students with regard to the identity of the speakers, … we came to understand that we must conduct a preliminary discussion that will deal … with the basis of democracy in general and freedom of expression in particular (which includes the freedom not to participate in the discussion). Given this, we decided to postpone the encounter with the director of B’Tselem to a different date sometime next month.”
Instead of the meeting with El-Ad, Rabinovitz told his pupils that he would meet with them himself to discuss “the basic rights in a democratic society, the arenas of discourse and the tools of expression within them.” It’s hard to believe that there will be much value to this discussion, because what the Reali principal had to teach about pluralism, freedom of expression and basic rights in a democratic society, he has already taught them with the example he set when he yielded to the right-wing silencing campaign without a fight.
If the students of the Haifa Reali school are still interested in learning how to respond properly to situations of political persecution, what solidarity means and what courage is made of, they ought to look to the example set by the representatives of Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, and by attorney Daniel Haklay. They were also meant to address the students, but when they learned that the session with El-Ad had been put off, they refused to do so.
One must hope that the encounter with the B’Tselem director has indeed merely been postponed, and not canceled. The right must not be allowed to frighten everyone who thinks differently into silence.
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The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.