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The 11th Knesset Opens: Herzog Warns Lawmakers to Guard Against Encroachments on Democracy

The 11th Knesset opened today with a stern warning to the parliamentarians from President Chaim Herzog to guard vigilantly against encroachments on Israel’s democracy.

Outside the Knesset, some 2,000 people demonstrated against racism and against MK Meir Kahane, leader of the Kach Party.

The anti-Kahane demonstrators hurled abuse at the Kach leader as his car drove by towards the Knesset. He shouted back and poked his tongue out. At one point the car was slowed to a crawl by a surge of demonstrators but police quickly intervened. The demonstrators applauded warmly at a brief speech of encouragement from Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.

Inside the Knesset, Kahane caused an incident when he sought to read from the Psalms instead of declaring “I thus undertake” — the statutory cath of office for MKs at the start of each new Knesset.

EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL CITIZENS STRESSED

Herzog, in his opening remarks, read pointedly from the section of the Declaration of Independence which promises equal rights for all citizens regardless of religion, race or sex. “Now is the moment to reiterate (these principles) in view of certain developments that have occurred in our midst,” Herzog urged.

There was no question in anyone’s mind that the President was referring to the election of Kahane. Herzog refused to receive the Kach leader when he conferred with all the other parties before empowering Labor Party leader Shimon Peres to try and form a govemment.

“Let us remember what we fought for, and what so many of us died for, “Herzog declared. He solemnly warned that “history has seen instances of democracies disintegrating at times of crises …. We are not immune from this …. It is up to you, Knesset members, to protect democracy.”

He observed that “justice and righteousness are the twin pillars of our heritage.” Above all, he said, the supremacy of the law and the equality of every citizen before the law were hallowed principles that “it is now timely to repeat and reiterate.”

Tolerance was “the vital need of the hour,” Herzog continued, between religious and secular, between ethnic communities and between different peoples living in Israel.

Yosef Burg of the National Religious Party, as the eldest MK, then took the chair and also made a strong plea for “national consensus … to bridge the chasms that divide us. “He urged that the Knesset avoid “verbal violence” and bar any physical violence — “lest violence spread like a plague among us. “Burg warned that “without coexistence, existence itself is in danger.”

He then read the text of the Knesset members’ declaration of allegiance, and Knesset clerk Shmuel Jacobson read off the names one by one, requiring each MK to stand and say “I thus undertake. “When Kahane’s turn came, however, the new MK started to read quotes from the Psalms from a card he had prepared.

Burg cut him short and said he was prepared to countenance only the addition of “with God’s help” to the statutory wording. Kahane persisted and Burg passed him by, saying he would give Kahane one more chance at the end of the roll-call, “other-wise you won’t be a Knesset member. “In the end, Kahane mumbled the required words and Burg said he accepted this as the requisite declaration.

COMPOSITIONS OF SOME COMMITTEES APPROVED

The Knesset then went on to approve the (prearranged) compositions of the temporary Finance Committee and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee as well as the temporary Knesset Committee, before adjourning for the rest of the week — while the talks on forming a new government go on.

No agreement was reached on Burg’s position as both the acting Speaker of the Knesset and his position as Interior Minister. This will no doubt come to a head if Likud and the Labor Alignment cannot reach an agreement on the election of a Speaker by the next session of the Knesset.

While the Knesset was in session, large forces of police and Knesset guards were in evidence around the building as anti-Kahane demonstrators held their peaceful rally. There was also a smaller rally by Na’amat Women (Pioneer Women) against religious coercion. The two groups of demonstrators were herded by police onto the sidewalks some 300 yards from the Knesset gates. The protestors carried placards, one set warning against the danger to democracy and the other set supporting religion but opposing coercion.

ANTI-RACIST LEGISLATION SOUGHT

Meanwhile, the Justice Minister has asked the Attorney General to prepare legislation outlawing racism and also to prepare legislation providing for a statutory body that could ban would-be parties from running for the Knesset if they advocate racist or other anti-State doctrines.

Justice Minister Moshe Nissim was quoted, in addition, as saying that his ministry would be willing to help if there was a move made from within the Knesset to change the sweeping law of parliamentary immunity.

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