Left- and right-wing groups gathered at Tel Aviv University Monday afternoon to mark and protest the Palestinian Nakba Day.
Far-right MK Aryeh Eldad called the Nakba “a day of celebration” as he led dozens of activists who protested a ceremony meant to mark the Palestinian “catastrophe” by students at the university.
Hundreds were gathered in front of the university, holding signs and yelling slogans. Police maintained a heavy presence between the two groups. Three protesters, two from the right and one from the left, were detained.
Nakba, or catastrophe, is the Palestinian term for Israel’s founding in 1948. It is marked on May 14 or May 15 each year.
The university’s decision to allow the ceremony caused an uproar on campus and in Jerusalem. The Education Ministry called the event “mistaken and saddening,” but university management decided to allow it to take place.
The event includes a minute of silence and the reading of personal stories by Palestinians who left their homes.
While marking the day has been common among Israeli Arabs for decades, it has only seeped into mainstream Israeli discourse in recent years.
Dan Wolfish, one of the students organizing the event, told Army Radio that understanding the pain of the Palestinians was crucial to living a life with Arabs and Jews side by side. “We can’t ignore the fact that 700,000 people were removed from their homes,” he said. “Especially not in the public discourse.”
Lior Polat, a student at the university, countered on the event’s Facebook page that those who are demonstrating should turn their beliefs into actions and “go study in Jordan or Gaza.”
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who is also head of the Israel Council for Higher Education, asked the university management to reconsider the decision to permit the event. A spokesperson for the minister said allowing students to call the founding of the state “a catastrophe” was “outrageous and mistaken.”
While the Knesset’s Education Committee head Alex Miller (Yisrael Beytenu) called the event “a dangerous precedent,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said any attempt to restrict freedom of speech would be “a dangerous slippery slope,” noting that freedom of speech on university campuses was crucial in any democracy.
Right-wing legislator Eldad said “We should celebrate the defeat of our enemies. It’s what enabled us to form a Jewish state.”
The university, which itself is partly built over the ruins of an Arab village, issued a response saying that a group of students requested permission to mark the Nakba on campus, and all the events would be held according to the law and the regulations of the institution.
A recent law passed in the Knesset pulled state funding from any institution than holds Nakba Day events.
For some years, the day has been turned into a political display in support of the Palestinian cause around the world, and has seen some violent eruptions following demonstrations.
Last year, several thousand Palestinians and others tried to storm Israel’s borders from Syria and Lebanon on Nakba Day.