Eight presidents of Israeli universities and some 400 outstanding civics students from across the country took part on Sunday in Education and Democracy Day at the Knesset, which was held as part of the events marking the 50th anniversary of the parliament building in Jerusalem.

During the day, Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein and the university presidents discussed issues related to education and democracy, and the presidents held discussions with the high school students on a host of related topics.

The students also watched the play ”The Wave”, a production of the Orna Porat Theater for Children. ”The Wave” is based on the true story of American high school history teacher Ron Jones, who conducted a classroom experiment which simulated how a movement aimed at eliminating democracy can be created, even in a free society. The Hebrew version of the play was written by Zvia Huberman, and it is directed by Roi Segev.

University presidents during Education and Democracy Day at the Knesset: Foundations of Israeli democracy are being eroded

(Edelstein with university presidents. Photo: Itzik Harari, Knesset`s Public Relations Division)

The following university presidents took part in the day`s events: Prof. Peretz Lavie, President of the Technion; Prof. Rivka Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University; Prof. Joseph (Yossi) Klafter, President of Tel Aviv University; Menahem Ben-Sasson, President of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Haifa University President Amos Shapira; Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz; Prof. Yehuda Danon, President of Ariel University; and Prof. Jacob (Kobi) Metzer, President of the Open University.

Prior to the day`s activities, the university presidents, who are members of the Association of University Heads, issued a joint statement saying that they are visiting the Knesset in order to ”warn about the gradual and continuous erosion of the foundations of Israeli democracy, which is manifested in hurtful discourse, verbal violence and lack of tolerance towards the other and the different.”

”We believe that educating students to uphold democratic values is necessary in order to curtail this erosion and create a basis for a joint existence of all segments of the torn Israeli society, while preserving the dignity of every person,” the statement read. The university heads further said that they believe the Knesset should ”initiate and lead a different discourse – tolerant and honorable. Together with the Knesset Speaker and at his initiative, we will conduct today an exceptionally important discussion on the tight connection between education and people`s ability to accept the existing differences within Israeli society.”

Edelstein opened the event by saying that the Knesset and the universities ”significantly influence the younger generation”, adding ”I believe democracy is comprised of many levels, and any attempt to discuss the matter results in arguments and numerous interpretations. It is imperative that the discussion here be genuine – certainly with the youths – because we usually tend to talk in slogans and give interpretations to everything.”

Prof. Lavie, who also serves as Chairman of the Association of University Heads, said ”something bad is happening within Israeli society. We are witnessing an erosion of the public discourse, and tolerance has extremely deteriorated. We all expect the elected officials to address the situation.”

Prof. Ben-Sasson said: ”It is clear to us all that there is constant dialogue between science and democracy. Science is the magic word in the universities. It too is open to criticism, and we educate people to think in a critical manner. If the universities will use the tools at their disposal correctly, we will be able to achieve a more proper discourse.”

Prof. Shapira said: ”I would change this day`s name to `education against racism.` We are in a continuous war against racist trends in Israeli society, and even science does not make people immune to racism. Today, universities are Israel`s melting pot and their job is to educate against the virus of racism. That is our goal on this day.”

Prof. Danon said ”This is a great opportunity to hear what the youths have to say. This meeting shows them that accessibility to academic studies is not merely a slogan.”

Prof. Hershkowitz said tolerance, democracy and the acceptance of the other ”must be expressed not only in content, but in behavior as well.”

Prof. Klafter argued that ”there is no real democracy without education and the granting of tools to the world of knowledge. It is the university`s job to grant education, tools and empowerment to the individual so that he or she will understand what democracy is. Providing education narrows the gaps in society, and from there it is easier to resolve other problems.”

Prof. Metzer argued that ”we are in the 90th minute when it comes to the need for a radical change in relation to our values. Constant tension exists between the Jewish nation state and the rights of the individual, and we must face these issues.”

Prof. Carmi said ”the problem is that even if we educate our children from a young age [to uphold democratic values], when they reach the age of recruitment there is a dissonance between them being soldiers and their personal definition as human beings. This atmosphere is sometimes caused by parliament, but also by the discourse on social networks, which is at times very harsh.”

Speaker Edelstein summarized the meeting by saying, ”I see that the public discourse issue also worries you very much. I am planning to address some of the topics, including the problematic discourse in Israel, in the speech I will deliver at the torch lighting ceremony on the eve of Independence Day.”

During the day, the winning caricatures of the 2015 ”Cartoon, Criticism, Care” competition will be on display in the Knesset. The Jerusalem Press Club and the Israeli Cartoon Museum launched the competition among high-school students in Israel, for the best cartoons dealing with the issues of ”how to relate to the other, the different, and the believer in another religion.”