AN extreme rightwing religious student has been elected head of Bar-Ilan University's student union more than two years after the assassination of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by one of its students.
Meir Lapid, 25, who wears the earlocks of an ultra-orthodox Jew and has been called a "wolf in sheep's clothing" by the local press, was elected by 10 per cent of the student body at Bar-Ilan (a little less than the usual voting percentage) under the banner of unity. He called for "brothers before and after ideological argument", emphasising the need for unity between all stripes of political and religious opinion.
A coalition of students from Labour-Mafdal (National Religious Party), Likud and Israel B'Aliya (the Russian immigrants' party) opposed his election, although representatives from these parties subsequently formed a coalition with him to work on student issues.
Mr Lapid is head of "Ahim", (brothers), a new group on campus, which claims to be non-political. He said: "Sometimes we are so busy arguing that we do not remember that we are brothers. We are a group of idealists and volunteers who want to reach out with the idea that we are brothers and that we should make decisions with that understanding."
He says the idea of unity "comes from my personal history", which includes the loss of his father and brother in a terrorist attack in the West Bank town of Hebron five years ago. Mourners across the political spectrum came to visit the family.
He said there was a need for a connection between right and left in Israeli society, "a little more humanity ... We do not understand what is between us and the other, the acute problem is between us ... As soon as there is unity among the Jews, it will be a catalyst for the rest of the world".
Mr Lapid, who is studying the Bible and biology, visited Rabin's widow, Leah, after the murder, attempting to heal the breach between left and right, but she had nothing to say to him.
"Someone has to break the ice," he said.
However, Menachem Friedman, an outspoken sociology lecturer at Bar-Ilan, said that although Mr Lapid represents an "attractive idea in Israeli society, namely, that of unity, when he says unity, he excludes Israeli Arabs", who represent a small percentage of the student population at Bar-Ilan but a higher percentage of the society at large.
He thinks the real tragedy is that Bar-Ilan will be stigmatised as the centre of the extreme right "now it has elected (such a student)".
Racist ideas have also been expressed at other universities, such as the protest at Tel Aviv University over a Druze student being elected head of the student union, and past violence at the Hebrew University against Arab students, he said.
However, Professor Friedman agrees that among the 40 per cent of religious students at Bar-Ilan many have a sympathy towards the extreme rightwing.
"There was a group among the rightwing in the country who wanted to get rid of Yitzhak Rabin. Bar-Ilan University was part of it. However, the rightwing does not have a majority here.
"Part of the embarrassment of Israeli society is that it is split internally. Ordinary people like to see unity," Professor Friedman said.
David Weinberg, head of public relations at Bar-Ilan, said: "Mr Lapid represents a new breed that we haven't seen before: a right-wing apostle of religious-secular dialogue. He managed to bring people of different religious-political perceptions to work together on a co-existence platform.
"If that is how he will direct his activities, then we will be very pleased. If he intends to use his position to initiate political debate and activities of an acute political nature, we will use all the means at our disposal to make sure that that doesn't happen."