Israeli university heads warn of ‘erosion’ of democracy at Knesset event

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein met with the university presidents to discuss pressing issues relating to education and democracy.

May 8, 2016 20:52
2 minute read.
University presidents meet with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in his office

University presidents meet with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in his office. (photo credit: KNESSET)

The foundations of Israeli democracy are eroding, the presidents of all eight Israeli universities warned in a joint statement on Sunday.

The university heads made the remarks ahead of Education and Democracy Day at the Knesset, which was held as part commemorations marking the 50th anniversary of the legislature’s location at Givat Ram in Jerusalem.

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As part of the event, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein met with the university presidents to discuss pressing issues relating to education and democracy.

“All the university presidents arrived in the Knesset of Israel 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 toward the other and the different,” the university presidents said in their statement.

“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,” they said.

The university heads further added 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,” they said.

Edelstein opened the event by saying that the Knesset and the universities “significantly influence the younger generation.”

“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,” he said.

Prof. Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology and 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 deteriorated.”

He called on the elected officials to address the situation.

Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 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. Amos Shapira, president of the University of Haifa, said he would change the 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,” he said.

Prof. Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, added that “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.”

The presidents also met with some 400 outstanding high school civics students to hold discussions on a host of related topics.

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