This was the first time I left a panel while it was still in progress. And of all places, it was in Netanya, the town of my birth and the place where I first learned to pronounce the word “democracy.” Today they tried to re-educate me.
It started as an elections panel. Each representative had five minutes to speak. Likud, Labor, Jewish Home, Yesh Atid, everybody. I was the first to speak, and decided to discuss the connection between the social protest movement we have led and politics—talking about a new economic structure and solutions for our social problems, then about the urgent need for young people to stop being afraid of politics, of democracy. Ten minutes later, it was Balad’s turn to speak. The representative of that controversial Palestinian-nationalist party, Yael Lehrer, started to talk about her agenda, but managed to use barely two minutes of her time before the audience shut her up. “What about the Marmara?” somebody yelled, referring to the 2010 flotilla that tried to breach the Israeli blockade of Gaza. “I am proud that we were there,” she responded. Boom. The audience was up on its feet. Students pulled out cell phones to document the circus. Ofir Akunis (Likud) stepped to the front of the stage and commanded us, the panelists: “All the representatives of Zionist Parties must get off the stage immediately and stop listening to this abomination!”
The Jewish Home and Kadima folks start marching in a line. Joel Hason (The Movement) stands up and asks Yael to withdraw her claim about the Marmara, turns, stands up and sits down, confused, impatient. Arieh Eldad (Otzma Le Israel) waits patiently, obviously wanting to say something positive in Arabic that he had learned in preparation for his racist campaign commercial. Shelah (Yesh Atid), Mosi (Meretz) and I remain sitting, siding with democracy.
Yael insists on speaking, but the audience is shouting in response. Suddenly they stand up as one and sing the national anthem, Hatikva (The Hope). Fast, strong, and stronger. A growing gang is marching toward the stage and shouting at Yael: “Our friends were killed in wars in this country, who gave you the right to speak here at all?” Akunis stands to the side purring in pleasure.
The panel moderator, himself a student, doesn’t know how to respond. First he asks Yael to leave the stage, then pleads for her to keep silent. I look at him and tell him that if she is not allowed to speak like the rest of us, I will also not sit on this stage. He returns an apologetic gaze.
Then the president of the institute mounts the stage. An older man, wearing a skullcap. He stands there and says that he is proud that the institute has today decided to grant Ethiopians an exemption from paying tuition. The audience claps happily. He gets off the stage and asks his secretary to get him out of there. “Quickly,” he commands her, “I must go.”
Ronit Tirosh (Kadima) encourages the audience to shout, and explains to Yael that the people present at this event have established democratically by their shouting that Balad is not appropriate, and that Yael is being asked to be considerate and get off the stage. Eldad (Otzma Le Israel) follows her and preaches that we are a Jewish state and we will not be moved out of here, nor will anybody move us.
And when his hateful, racist voice is mixed with this applause, while Yael is trying in vain to speak only to discover that her microphone has been turned off, I drop my restraint. I stand up and stop Eldad in his tracks. “I do not agree with the positions of the Balad Party,” I tell the audience, “but I disagree even more with the fatal wounds to democracy that other parties present here on the stage are suggesting as alternatives.”
The audience applauds, a little confused. Yulia Shmalov (Economy) tries to stop me, mumbling something about the New Israel Fund. I continue. “We have here extreme racist parties that threaten to destroy our existence as a democratic state. It is acceptable to disagree with them, I disagree with them, but I will sit here and listen just as I will listen to the representative of Balad, because more than anything I love our democracy. If we do not listen to opinions that are difficult to hear, none of us will have room here.”
Five minutes later, and Eldad is back to his fiery style. He speaks about might, Judaism, and purity. He speaks like a victor, as if this State, with all its values and beliefs, belongs to him. I understand that Yael will never get her right to speak, and that given that, I should get off the stage. Joel Hason and Mosi Raz join me and get off the stage, too. A group of Labor Party activists exit to hug and support us. “We are truly in danger,” says one, looking at the shouting Jewish Home activists inside. He is not talking about Knesset seats. He is thinking of the deep chasm into which the foundations of the state are collapsing, towards a dark bottom.
We have had too many years of Akunis and his colleagues educating our children. They have redefined Zionism, democracy, our hope—and snatched them from the sane public, which began to mix up Zionism with racism; democracy with the curbing of the media and freedom of expression; and proper leadership with the abolition of the power of the courts, the justice system and the law.
To many people this election campaign looks like a sleepy affair. But a great danger is looming over it. If you want Akunis to continue educating our children, stay home, read a good book and talk about the snow that finally visited Jerusalem last night. And if you are worried, like me—I expect to see you with us, in the streets, in the schools, in the parties’ headquarters. Friends, in two weeks we will vote not just for a party, but also for our freedom, for democracy, for sanity.
This article, previously published in The Daily Beast, is reprinted here with permission from the author.