Across the nation, candidates in the 2019 Israeli elections are making a practice of taking politics out of the Knesset and into school halls.
In the past weeks, senior members of most parties have flocked to Ramat Gan’s celebrated Blich High School, which on Tuesday held its traditional pre-election mock vote. In the past, the civic exercise has predicted national results.
Stating their platforms for the students was a swath of Very Important Politicians, including the head of the Labor Party Avi Gabbay, Blue and White candidate Gabi Ashkenazi, head of Meretz Tamar Zandberg, head of Gesher Orly Levi-Abakasis and New Right candidate Alona Barkat.
This year, the new Blue and White party was voted in first place with 47 percent of the school’s 2,300-strong student body. The Likud party followed with 21% and Meretz took third with 10% of the votes. The atmosphere was described in a Maariv report as “carnival-like,” with music heard throughout the pastoral Ramat Gan neighborhood.
Some 80 kilometers away and across the Green Line and deep in the Judean desert, pupils at a more sober event by the Kfar Adumim Community High School were relieved to hear from a diverse panel of would-be (and one current) members of Knesset that their parties had no intention of evacuating their homes in the small West Bank town.
Tuesday’s panel included candidates across the spectrum of political views, including Avi Davosh, number 10 on the far-left Meretz party list; left-wing Labor’s 20th spot, the ultra-Orthodox female leader Michal Zernowitski; centrist Blue and White party’s number 33, Gadi Yavrakan; current MK Osnat Mark from the ruling Likud party, listed as 36th for the elections; and Davidi Ben Zion, running for Jewish Home in the Union of Right Wing Parties in the 10th spot.
Meretz candidate Davosh stated in no uncertain terms, “Kfar Adumim is part of a settlement bloc. There is no danger for Kfar Adumim.” He added that in any eventual peace plan there would be painful concessions, including evacuations of settlements. “To go on a campaign for peace is just like going to war… It is a very complex mission,” said Davosh.
The settlement was founded 40 years ago on the principle of religious and secular Jews living — and learning — side-by-side. The Community High School (in Hebrew called KAN or “Here,” an acronym of the three settlements that make up its student base — Kfar Adumim, Alon, and Nofei Prat) was founded in 2014 and advocates for “discussion, learning, and action.” Communal volunteering is part of the curriculum and students have the option of praying in a quorum. (Full disclosure: this reporter lives in Kfar Adumim and her son studies at this high school.)
Most of the candidates on Tuesday’s panel have slight chance of entering the Knesset — Labor candidate Zernowitski quipped that each student should return home and convince 100 people to vote for each of them — but were treated as representatives of their parties’ platforms in questions from the moderator and students.
As was evident in the question and answer period, the 150-odd student body — led by principal Yael Sapir — is already socially and politically activated. Moderator/physics teacher Tuval Avishai kicked off the event with a pointed question regarding the status of the Kfar Adumim settlement in any future border agreements. There was consensus among the candidates that the children and their families would not need to leave their homes.
Likud’s Mark, who lives in the nearby city of Maale Adumim, prefaced her remarks by saying this election is all about “Bibi or Tibi” (the prime minister or Arab MK Ahmed Tibi), a Likud campaign slogan insinuating that the rival Blue and White party would sit in a coalition with Arab parties. Mark promised the youth that the State of Israel will not uproot any Jewish settlement, nor would there be a Palestinian state.
Standing and speaking loudly without the use of a microphone, Jewish Home candidate Ben Zion said that his party supports a democratic state, but said the party is working to emphasize its Jewish identity.
The State of Israel would not disengage from any more settlements purely from a cost perspective, claimed Ben Zion, the Deputy and Acting Head at Shomron (Samaria) Regional Council. Whereas only 8,000 Jews lived in Gush Katif, some 150,000 live outside the large settlement blocs.
However, he raised the possibility that the still-not-unveiled peace plan from US President Donald Trump may create a situation in which he and his family in the settlement of Elon Moreh could be forced to live under Palestinian control and that was out of the question.
“The meaning of Palestinian Authority control is 100% lack of security,” said Ben Zion in a follow-up question by 10th grader Leora who wondered why that would be problematic. “The Palestinian police are nothing more than terrorists in uniforms,” he said.
“That’s fear-mongering,” cried out Mark. “We don’t know what’s in the deal yet. There’s never been a president who loves Israel as much as Trump. It’s nonsense to say that to go from Elon Moreh to Jerusalem you’ll need a passport. You’re trying to frighten the public.”
In the swell of student response to the bickering, Meretz candidate Davosh, who lives in the Negev town of Sderot where missiles rain from Gaza, attempted to explain that since the Oslo Accords, there has been a systematic cooperation between PA and Israeli forces that have averted numerous attempted terrorist attacks. “To say that every PA policeman is a terrorist is very dangerous,” he said.
Blue and White’s Yavrakan, a self-proclaimed right-winger and long-time Likud member, took the approach of “Just Not Bibi.” An immigrant from Ethiopia at age 8 in 1991, he said that after walking kilometers to reach the Jewish State — “The most important day of my life” — he would not give up a millimeter of it. However, the country’s democratic values are being eroded by the current prime minister, who is more concerned for his political life than the good of the country.
“He [Netanyahu] is simply destroying democracy. They are stealing your dreams,” said Yavrakan. The whole discourse over left and right is “bullshit,” he said, and a tool to delegitimize half the country’s political beliefs. “I am a Likudnik, I appreciate its people, but we have to put the State of Israel ahead of everyone. Blue and White provides hope,” he said.
Speaking to this large group of youth who were largely born into the settler movement, Davosh and Labor candidate Zernowitski consistently depicted a future in which peace is still possible and the status quo can, and must, be changed.
“At the end of the day, with whom do you make peace? With the enemy,” said Davosh. “I’ll tell you a secret, though. The Palestinians are people too, just like you and me. They want a good economy, education, peace and quiet, just like you and me… Three times a day we pray for shalom peace; we must continue.”
The Haredi Zernowitski took a more secular Zionist approach and told the youth to put the elections aside for a moment and asked them to dream.
“Our grandparents — for you maybe great-grandparents — came and founded an amazing state. They didn’t sit and moan, ‘Oy ya’yoy.’ There is nothing that cannot be solved,” she said. The approach of the current government is to conserve and make do with what is, she said.
“I look forward and think about how I want the state to look,” Zernowitski said. “When our grandparents came, Israel sounded like a fantasy. But when you know what you want, it can be done.”