Modifying a day usually associated with music, games, and a party atmosphere, Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston marked Israel’s Independence Day by hosting a debate on Israel with activists from opposite ends of the political spectrum, followed by student presentations of varying points of view on Israel, including Palestinian perspectives.
The goal, rosh yeshiva and principal Rabbi Eliezer E. Rubin told parents in an April 15 letter, was to provide students with a “strong grasp on understanding the differing narratives, the political conflict, and the historic truths of Israel.”
“While we are looking forward to celebrating the day and creating a festive environment,” wrote Rubin, “we will also dedicate a significant portion of our program to understanding Israel’s conflict with her neighbors as well as different political views.”
Senior Edyt Dickstein moderated the April 16 debate between attorney Mark Levenson, chair of the New Jersey-Israel Commission and a pro-Israel activist aligned with Likud, and Ralph Seliger, a writer who blogs for Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA).
Seliger and Levenson disagreed considerably, not only in their positions but in their interpretations of the facts.
On the question of settlements, Seliger said that 1995 negotiations between Israel’s Yossi Beilin and Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas yielded an agreement that would have allowed the 75 to 80 percent of the settler population in three major settlement blocs to remain where they lived. That agreement, he said, was derailed by the assassination that year of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“At the end, because of his assassination and the fact that Shimon Peres, his successor, was not as adept a politician, the agreement collapsed and the so-called peace process slowed to a crawl,” said Seliger. “The settlements were not the problem. The problem is settlement expansion. Now Palestinians do not know where it will stop.”
By contrast, Levenson said, “This so-called agreement Yossi Beilin reached with Abbas was not in a government framework.”
No one from the Palestinian side, Levenson added, “is saying, ‘We agree, we will give up these three blocs.’ That is part of the problem the Israeli government faces.”
Levenson also defended Peres.
“Shimon Peres was one of Israel’s greatest heroes and an international jewel who lent tremendous legitimacy to Israel. The only reason he was not elected after Rabin’s assassination was because a series of bombs catapulted [Benjamin Netanyahu] into the prime ministership. After the assassination, [Peres] had tremendous good will,” he said.
In turn, Seliger argued that the series of bombings was a response to the decision taken by Peres to target Yahya Ayyash, the Palestinian terrorist nicknamed The Engineer. The Shin Bet killed Ayyash in January 1996 with a bomb placed in a cell phone.
Such debates, Rubin said in an interview following the program, are meant to prepare students to be advocates for Israel when they attend college.
“Having an emotional, visceral connection to Israel is not enough for young people today,” said Rubin. “When they encounter the real world, they need to be informed. When we see what’s going on on college campuses, we have to readjust what we do regarding Israel education.”
Rubin said he wants the Kushner students to learn to think about the issues themselves in an informed way.
“We’re not standing for any political position,” he said. “We are not trying to convince the students to take a particular position already reached by an adult. We want them to reach their own conclusions after they have thought about it and grappled with it to some extent.”
Abigail Rubin, 16, a 10th-grader at the school, suggested students are getting the message.
“I thought it was interesting and I liked seeing both sides represented, and not just having a one-sided presentation,” she said. “Personally, I don’t feel that I know so much. And hearing both sides talk about different issues, I feel more educated, and like I can form my own opinion.”