September 22, 2019

A day in the life of the (model) Knesset

American Jewish University’s (AJU) dining hall was abuzz with chatter on Jan. 18, when about 100 local high school students debated Israel’s proposed, controversial nation-state bill as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Model Knesset Day.

Upon arrival, students were assigned the identity of a current member of the Knesset and, by association, that member’s party affiliation. After introductions and a few activities, students were divided according to their appointed parties to eat dinner and discuss the law that would have formally defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Introduced last November, it was shelved before the Knesset could vote on the legislation. 

“I’m personally against this bill because I don’t think that any country based on a religion will be a success,” one student said. 

Another responded, to a round of applause (and a few hearty whoops): “The idea that no democracy could be based on religion isn’t sound because democracies — including the United States, England, France, Russia and Germany  — are all based on sects of Christianity, and they’re pretty successful so far.”

The event sponsored by Federation’s Community Engagement Strategic Initiative was part debate, part workshop and part dinner buffet. It was the perfect complement to current events, according to Dan Gold, Federation’s vice president of Israel advocacy and education. 

“We got really lucky that Israel decided to have an actual election this year, so it’s timing up very perfectly,” he said.

It was meant to be engaging, too.

“All of you guys are proving that elections can be fun. Whoo!” an enthusiastic Dana Erlich, Israel consul for culture, media and public diplomacy, said to a Knesset’s worth of high-schoolers as the event started. 

Participating students came from the Diller Teen Fellows program, Israel Scouts (Tzofim), Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and Village Christian School in Sun Valley.

Barbara Charash, an AP government high school teacher at Village Christian School, attended the conference with 44 of her students — and would have brought more if space hadn’t been limited. Raised in a conservative Evangelical Christian home, she said her parents instilled a fervent support for Israel in her as a child that she continues to uphold today. In June 2013, Charash visited Israel for the first time with Federation’s Holy Land Democracy Project, which brings Southern and Central California educators to Israel for a first-person experience. 

“I think it’s really important for Christian kids to be exposed to other teenagers that they normally wouldn’t interact with,” she said. “Speaking as a mom, we need to broaden our perspective in our worlds.”

One of Charash’s students, Nathan Magalit, 17, said, “I don’t know many other classes who have field trips like this or have connections like she does.”

He continued: “So far, it’s been very educational. When I entered here, I had a little bit of an understanding of the Knesset — basic facts, like it has 120 members and it’s unicameral.” But he said that he didn’t understand the cultural significance until the Federation event.

Magalit was assigned to the Likud Party, which, he said, “means we’re centrist-right … and we’re fighting for strong family values, strong military — almost like a Republican ideology.”

Hamilton High School sophomore and Federation Teen Advisory board member Sasha
Reiss was assigned to the centrist party Yesh Atid. Reiss, 15, said he was excited by the diversity represented at the event.

“I think it’s really cool that so many people are here who aren’t Jewish but still came here to learn with an open mind about Israel,” he said. 

After dinner, students were asked to return to the Knesset for a panel discussion. In this particular mock scenario, four student representatives were asked to debate Israel’s nation-state bill on behalf of their adopted parties. Moderated by Sinai Temple Millennial Director Matt Baram, students responded to a series of questions they had talked about previously in their discussion groups.

At the end of the discussion, all participants were asked to vote twice on the nation-state bill: first according to their party and a second time as themselves. The bill passed during the first vote by a very narrow margin; the second vote failed by a landslide.

“I think it’s important for teens to deepen their understanding of Israel and their empathy with the democratic process,” said Rabbi Hal Greenwald, assistant director of Federation’s Holy Land Democracy Project. 

“This is a Sunday on a holiday weekend [Martin Luther King Jr. Day], and they came out to learn about political science. I’m not sure I would’ve done that!” he said, laughing.