Bar-Ilan students hold dialogue on Rabin's legacy

On the 13th anniversary of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, some 100 Bar-Ilan University students - secular and religious - sat in a "dialogue tent" Monday, discussing their differences and comparing what they have in common. Protected from the midday sun by the tent, the students, who came of their own initiative, talked about army service, politics, religious coercion, education and the future of the Jewish people in Israel. Between noon and 2 p.m. all classes were suspended at Bar-Ilan to allow students from diverse and often mutually hostile walks of Israeli society to talk about the meaning of the national tragedy. Occasionally, discussions became heated. "Don't tell me that the secular school system is ideologically bankrupt," a secular woman shouted at a kippa-wearing interlocutor, who sat in one of several circles on a large grassy expanse adjacent to the university's student union headquarters. But most of the discussions, sometimes the first real attempt by members of very different religious and political backgrounds to truly understand the other, were civil - and even friendly. Many of the students, now in their early twenties, barely remember the day of the assassination. Nehora Amar, a law student, was only 10 when Yigal Amir, at the time also a law student at Bar-Ilan, shot Rabin dead. "For me the assassination is more a historical event that gives me an opportunity to reexamine my relationship with my secular peers," said Amar, who, like Amir, grew up in religious Zionist educational institutions. "We make a clear distinction between his evil act and the very real political and religious differences that exist between us." Amar is a graduate of Bar-Ilan's Secular Religious Dialogue Program, which brings together 20 students from different backgrounds for a semester of weekly meetings. Unlike the one-time meeting arranged on the anniversary of the assassination, the program provides a framework for sustained dialogue. For Bar-Ilan University the anniversary of Rabin's assassination is a complex day, and not just because Rabin's assassin happened to be a student here at the time of the assassination. As campus Rabbi Shlomo Shefer put it, "for a good period after the assassination the university was targeted by the media and others as if it were some hotbed of radicalism. Thank God, since then things have changed." Bar-Ilan, which was established as a religious university (students are required to take courses in Jewish studies) has a disproportionately high percentage of religious students. About half of the student body is religious, much higher than religious proportion of the general population, which is about 15 to 20 percent. Certain extreme ideological streams within religious Zionism continue to be a target of criticism. For instance, on Saturday evening at the main Rabin memorial ceremony at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, Labor Chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak called zealot settlement activists "cancerous growths." "We promise you, Yitzhak," said Barak, "we will remove this evil from us." Barak was referring to comments made by an extremist after the evacuation of the Federman Farm, an illegal outpost near Hebron. The settler said that he hoped "IDF soldiers would be stricken by their enemies" and would "end up like captured soldier Gilad Schalit." Barak's comments, which sparked a flurry of rancorous opposition from right-wing politicians, including Shas Chairman Eli Yishai, demonstrates the huge tensions that still exist between religious and secular and underlines the importance of initiatives like Bar-Ilan's "dialogue tent."