Students from the Hayovel school in Herzliya greet an American delegate to the UJC General Assembly last week.The Israeli high school students at the Hayovel school in Herzliya sat around the table in their school library, wearing a tag around their neck declaring their new ‘identities.’
One was a sheep farmer in Australia, another was a fervent Moslem – one of four wives living in Afghanistan – one an Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn, and another a foreign Thai worker living in Israel.
Next to them, was a blackboard with a list of basic human rights that the students had compiled through discussion: the right to life, health care, education, property, freedom of occupation, freedom of speech, freedom of religion ? and freedom from religion – and the list went on.
One by one, the students around the table noted the basic rights that were most important to them in their new identities. When they hesitated, David Goldfarb, the lively Hebrew University law student leading the conversation, prompted them. “I would think that holding on to your property would be pretty important to a sheep farmer,” he said.
After they completed their list-making, Goldfarb got to the heart of the discussion – when you are trying to put together a constitution – when you are trying to define the basic rights that the citizens of a country are guaranteed – you must take into account the fact that some rights are more important to certain individuals and to others.
Then the students took off their tags and had to think as young Israelis, what rights and freedoms they felt they most needed to define and protect. “What rights are most important to you?” Goldfarb asked the students. “What would be the most important part of your constitution?”
He then guided the group into a discussion of democratic institutions – those which define and establish rights like the Knesset and the government – and the institution which defends them against threats – the courts. And then they moved into the tough part, discussing what happens when the rights of some and the rights of others collide.
This program is not an isolated case – discussions by students such as these are taking place in a number of high schools across the country as a result of an ambitious pilot program by the Israel Democracy Institute.
“We started this pioneering education program when we realized the civics studies and education for democracy was lacking in the curriculum in Israeli public school system. We knew we had to put civics higher on the agenda,” said Daphna Gruber, director of education for IDI.
The IDI pilot program received a particularly warm welcome in Herzliya, where mayor Yael German has placed democracy education high on the agenda, the first city to make democracy an academic subject.
“Just as the body needs an immune system to fight off threats, so does the soul and the mind. For that purpose, democracy is that immune system,” German said.
The IDI is hoping that this kind of dynamic dialogue regarding fundamental rights on a nationwide level will lead to the creation of an Israeli constitution that is able to take into consideration all segments of Israeli society.
The Institute, an independent, non-partisan research organization, was established in 1991 with the goal of “strengthening Israel’s democratic institutions and shaping its values.”
In recent years, the organization has focused much of its energy on its ‘Constitution by Consensus’ project.
The project aspires to “create a sense of unity around a core of values, which will represent the common denominator of the entire Israeli society” and provide Israeli democracy with the key element it is lacking – a real constitution.
This process, the Institute believes will “strengthen a common perception of values, and make a critical contribution to the creation of a unifying and bonding collective identity, thus addressing the deepening schisms and gaps that divide Israeli society. The process of creation, particularly in schools, is viewed as being as critical as the end goal.
“The exposure of students – young people on the threshold of civic life – to values, dilemmas and issues relating to the very essence of Israeli society, can strengthen the feeling of belonging and the desire to make a contribution and have an impact.”
The central component of the project is a Public Council, headed by Supreme Court President Justice Emeritus Meir Shamgar, and includes over a hundred participants from all sectors of Israeli society, including, ministers, MKs, and local government leaders, educators, religious leaders, lawyers and judges, and members of the business community.
The Herzilya high school discussion took place before an audience of visiting American Jews, in Israel for the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities. The visitors were quizzed by the Israeli students what the Americans felt were the rights enshrined in the U.S. constitution that were most important to them. The American adults and the Israeli teens sat and discussed concepts such as the separation of powers in the federal government between legislative, executive and judicial, search and seizure and the separation of church and state.
The GA delegates were impressed by the level of knowledge and curiosity the teenagers possessed. “I listen to you and I am optimistic about the future of the State of Israel,” one said. “If you are the country’s future leaders, Israel will be in good hands.”