An Exercise in Democracy

A minute before a twelfth-grader at the Ort Singalovski school in Tel Aviv went to cast her vote in mock elections, she explained that she could now make an informed choice because she had listened to a panel from the political parties that appeared at the school. "I'm right-wing but not extreme like the people who vote for Yisrael Beiteinu," she explained. "They really want to kill the Arabs. But because I'm right-wing, I'm wavering between voting for Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, because now that we have the war, we can see that Barak also hates the Arabs."

In reply to a question whether she would consider voting for Likud, she answered: "I don't think so. It's a centrist party, kind of neutral. It's not for me."

The successful stand-up comedian, Shabi Zaraya, who initiated the mock elections together with the producer Ben Ravsky at this and nine other schools, was standing close by. The pupil is somewhat confused, he explained, and she is not the only one. "That's what happens in all parts of the public with regard to parties in the center," he said. "No one really knows who is what and what every party thinks. They are very similar."

The military campaign in Gaza has led most parties to declare that they are suspending their election campaigns. Those who did not are cutting down on their propaganda. But even during a war, it seems, the election campaigns have gone underground - in this case to the high schools. Many of the politicians who declared they were not campaigning are participating at this time in the project that Zaraya and Ravsky thought up.

According to their original plan, mock elections would have been held in as many as 30 schools. But the short time left before the elections forced them to cut back. "Everyone always runs to the Blich school in Ramat Gan to see how the pupils vote. We said that we should [hold mock elections] in a number of schools, as part of a 'democracy day,'" Zaraya explains.

When asked what is his connection to elections, the comedian is almost insulted. "I don't understand the question," he says. "Do you mean that because I'm a comedian I can't do other things I believe in? I deal quite a bit with ideological content. My aim is to try to transmit serious subjects to the youth in an enjoyable way."

He keeps his own political views to himself, saying: "I think it's best that I remain apolitical in the eyes of the pupils because of this project, but I have well-formed political views."

Zaraya and his partner linked up with a series of schools that responded favorably to the suggestion and are participating in the mock elections: the Ramle-Lod high school, the Ben-Gurion high school in Petah Tikva, the Hayovel high school in Herzliya, Ironi Yud Daled and Ort Singalovski in Tel Aviv, the Ostrovsky high school in Ra'anana, the Hadarim school in Hod Hasharon, the Heit comprehensive high school in Rishon Letzion, and the Ort schools in Givatayim and Holon. The participants are eleventh- and twelfth-graders. "Before 'election day,' the pupils attend civics classes devoted to democracy and elections, and the highlight is the mock election day itself, during which we have a panel with representatives of the parties. After that, the pupils go to cast their ballots just as happens in the real elections," he says.

Zaraya notes that about one-third of the pupils who vote in the mock elections will have an actual vote in the upcoming national elections.

At Ort Singalovski, the pupils first wandered among the various booths set up by the parties and spoke to their representatives. By the time the panel was due to speak, the pupils had gathered quite a deal of information, and the various party representatives who took the stage were met with encouraging whistles or boos. The most disappointed were Nurit Hajaj of Hadash, and Talia Sasson, the representative of Meretz-the New Movement, since it was clear that the youth in the audience did not like what they heard from them in the five minutes allocated to each speaker to explain their party's platform.

Sasson repeatedly said she was not used to speaking in such a noise as she did her best to explain why the settlements had to be dismantled in the territories. Hajaj tried to explain that Hadash regards the Arabs as equal citizens, and after the boos and cries of "death to the Arabs" she went over to another burning issue for her party - the lack of equality that people of Mizrahi origin, like herself, suffer from. The star of the panel was Yisrael Beiteinu's Alex Miller. The heavy hand-clapping that accompanied him onto the stage encouraged him to speak virulently against the Arabs in Israel and anyone else who dared to demonstrate in recent days against the campaign in Gaza, and he called not to give equal rights to "those who support those who are struggling against us."

Preaching to the choir

His words fell on willing ears in the audience - but one of the civics teachers asked for the right to speak, took the microphone, and announced that "anyone who repeats those undemocratic remarks that were made here by Miller in my tests will simply have points deducted by me."

Representatives of the other parties, such as Labor party secretary-general Eitan Cabel and Likud MK Gilad Erdan, also did their best to win the pupils' hearts. Cabel mentioned that Labor headquarters were close to the school, in the Hatikva quarter, and Erdan used slang popular with the youth (such as "sababa") in every sentence so that the pupils would listen to what he was saying. "Obama also won the elections because he managed to make the elections 'cool' for young people," Erdan said later, explaining where his inspiration had come from. "We certainly have to deal with barriers when getting across to the youngsters, such as the image that in politics everyone is corrupt."

The results at that school showed that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu were the big winners there. "Yisrael Beiteinu is a growing trend that we have noticed in most of the schools we have visited so far," Zaraya said. One of the teachers added that "It's not connected to the party but rather the person that the party sends [to the panel]. A relative of mine who is a pupil at a Petah Tikva school where mock elections were held said that everyone there voted for Yisrael Beiteinu simply because Yitzhak Aharonovitch who went there was so nice and spoke in such an interesting way."

The surveys show that Yisrael Beiteinu is not one of the three leading parties. Are youngsters more right-wing than the general population?

"That's not necessarily so," says Zaraya. "Some of them come with opinions from home but others are certainly open to listening. It varies from school to school. In Herzliya, for example, Labor won a very high percentage of the vote - one of the reasons was that the pupils met MK Shelly Yachimovich who made a strong impression on them." Compared with the stormy election day at Ort Singalovski, the democracy day at Ironi Yud Daled was "quiet - the most uninteresting so far," says Zaraya. The pupils listened politely and gave the speakers feeble applause. Like at Ort Singalovski, they asked the panel about [abducted soldier] Gilad Shalit and wanted to know whether Meretz supports a cessation of fighting in Gaza; they also wanted to know what Livni's skills would be as prime minister.

"The bottom line is that this day did not change my opinions in any way but it made me more aware," one of the pupils summarized. "My mother voted for Kadima in the last elections and I assumed that she knew what was correct. But now I'd like to know more about them. Perhaps when I get home, I'll open the Internet and read a bit about the issues."