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Protest ban after Rabin assassination

Sue Surkes reports on why Zionist schools are asking themselves difficult questions.

Heads and teachers in state religious schools are being instructed not to attend any political demonstrations until after the next general election. The move, designed to prevent educators from serving as role models for political extremism, is part of a clampdown following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, by a Jewish fundamentalist.

Pupils will no longer be allowed to take part in political rallies during school hours, and those seen at after-school demonstrations will be called in by teachers the next day for talks about democracy and the rule of law. Members of staff heard condoning the murder will be immediately suspended, and expelled. Parents who express extremist views to the media, or to their children, will be warned that they are threatening their children's continuation at the school.

The measures were outlined last week to a closed meeting of inspectors by the head of the ministry of education's state religious school division, Matityahu Dagan. Religious schools, which educate 230,000 pupils - around one-quarter of those in the state sector - fall into Israel's religious Zionist camp, which is under the spotlight as the community from which Rabin's assassin emerged.

Not to be confused with the black-clad ultra-orthodox Jews, who do not recognise the modern state of Israel, religious Zionists participate fully in Israeli society. They are committed to the Torah (Hebrew Bible) and the biblical Land of Israel, which includes territories occupied by Israel in 1967.

Many religious Zionists have been prominent in the Jewish settler movement, and in the increasingly violent anti-peace-process demonstrations of recent months. Now emerging from the immediate shock of Rabin's murder, they are searching their souls to work out what went wrong.

Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, aged 25, grew up in what appeared to be ordinary circumstances. Born to a religious family in the coastal town of Herzliyda, he attended religious high school in Tel Aviv, and completed compulsory army service in an elite brigade while continuing with his religious studies.

Three years ago, he began courses in law and computers at Bar-Ilan University, just north of Tel Aviv, an institution with a religious, yet open, ethos which attracts both religious and secular students. At some stage, he apparently established links with an extreme Jewish underground organisation known as Eyal. University authorities have said they had no evidence that the organisation was active on campus.

Questions are now being asked about the atmosphere in which Amir's views took shape: the violent rallies; the unbridled free speech that allowed the castigation of Rabin as a traitor and a Nazi, and the death threats that, until November 4, nobody believed; and the role played by public figures, including educators, in either encouraging the baiting or standing by silently as passions soared out of control.

"We saw children with skullcaps taking part in violent activities. We did not deal with it the next day in class, and that is our sin," Mr Dagan told The TES. "If we had heard about extremism in class, we would have dealt with it.

"But kids talk during the breaks. What the child hears at home, he brings to school, and it affects others. What we didn't do was tell the children that political violence is wrong."

It emerged last week that only 25 out of 700 state religious schools were using the services of the ministry of education's unit for democracy and co-existence education. Mr Dagan said democracy education would now be strengthened and expanded.

He sent psychologists into schools immediately after the murder. They reported that 80 per cent of a random sample of pupils expressed shock and fear, while one-fifth said they were frightened and ashamed to wear a skullcap.

The education minister, Amnon Rubinstein, announced that he would halt funds to any institution which does not conform to the rules of democracy and revealed that, several months ago, he had stopped support for an organisation that had dubbed Baruch Goldstein, murderer of 29 Arabs in Hebron, a saint.

It remains to be seen whether the murder will ultimately unify or further polarise secular and religious Jews. Many religious Jews feel their whole community has been tarred with the fundamentalist brush. Bar-Ilan University students have condemned Amir's act, and complained that they have been subjected to verbal abuse.

The university itself, which was last week poised to expel a student for posting an Internet message saying "the wicked witch is dead", has declared the killing contrary to everything Judaism and Bar-Ilan stand for. Its rector noted that, while one student murdered the prime minister, another served as his bodyguard and was wounded in the attack. Rabin's widow, Leah, told the university's leaders that she and her husband had always seen Bar-Ilan as a religious-secular bridge and that it could play an important role in healing the divide.

During the days following the assassination, perhaps the most striking image was that of young people - secular and religious - flocking in their hundreds of thousands to pay homage to the slain prime minister. Many of them left poems and notes: "Bye-bye daddy"; "Why have you left us?"; "What will we do without you?"

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