Praise for South African Jewish teens’ Israeli anthem protest

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men dance as they protest outside the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, during a protest in Jerusalem, October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Praise has been pouring in for two Grade 9 students at a Cape Town-based Jewish day school, who protested the Israeli national anthem last week by going down on one knee when it was sung at a school function. The students, who attend Herzlia school and themselves are Jewish, believed that the gesture – first introduced in 2016 by American football player, Colin Kaepernick, to draw attention to police brutality and racial inequality in the United States – was an appropriate form of protest against Israel’s half-century occupation of Palestine and the Israeli government’s repressive policies against the Palestinian people.

“If we stand for the national anthem of Israel, we are not only standing for the words in it but we are also standing for what Israel is as a country right now. We were being forced to do that and we didn’t want to,” explained one of the boys.

The boys also want to encourage a diversity of views on the issue of Israel’s occupation of Palestine – something which their school does not currently allow. “Herzlia as a school has a big problem with restriction of information. When the teachers teach you [about Palestine-Israel] they only teach you one side of the story. While teachers say its fine for you to talk about pro-Palestine ideas, inside the classroom they will only teach you pro-Israel ideas.” This, the teen says, results in students developing a narrow-minded view about Palestinians and the pro-Palestine solidarity movement.

The learners also hope that their protest will spark a much-needed conversation within the South African Jewish community about the occupation.

According to Geoff Cohen, the Education Director of the United Herzlia Schools group, the boys’ protest was “embarrassing”, “inappropriate”, and had “brought the school into disrepute.”

Cohen, together with the boys’ principal Shane Brorson, and in consultation with the management committee of the school’s governing body and the chair of the board of trustees, decided on a set of consequences that were designed to be “disciplinary and educational”. Cohen failed to clarify what specific actions would be taken against the boys.

The Western Cape Department of Education was unaware of the incident, and the disciplinary measures against the boys.

While the school has condemned the learners’ actions, others have heralded them as heroes.

Allan Kolski Horwitz, a former Herzlia student, and now the spokesperson for South African Jews for a Free Palestine, said the protest was “a brave act given the intolerant environment in which it took place.” Horwitz believes that the students’ use of a protest that is generally associated with black struggle was encouraging. “It shows that they are aware that the Palestinian struggle is part of a larger anti-colonial struggle,” he said in an interview with the Afro-Palestine Newswire Service.

Former government minister, Ronnie Kasrils, also praised the boys. “They put to shame the Zionist values that Herzlia’s authorities are so obviously intent on enforcing. They need to be applauded for the stand they have taken in bravely bending the knee,” said the anti-apartheid stalwart who is of Jewish origin.

The Herzlia incident sparked global interest after it was reported in Israeli media, and has firmly put the spotlight on how Jewish institutions deal with questions about the occupation from young Jews. Responding to the incident, IfNotKnow, an anti-occupation group made up mainly of Jewish millenials tweeted: “A new generation of Jews around the word are transforming our community. They’re demanding freedom and dignity for Palestinians. Jewish establishments now have a simple choice, follow their lead or continue ignoring the youth?” The South African Jewish Board of Deputies would not comment on the issue.

While some members of the Jewish community have called for the boys to be expelled, others have been more supportive. “I believe we should all be incredibly proud of the boys, and the courage it must have taken to take a stand in an environment that does not provide for free expression. They are true leaders, and represent the hope of all free-thinking Jews around the world,” said a community member.

This is not the first time that Herzlia has been accused of censoring discussions about the occupation. In 2016, Daniel Linde – a lawyer with the Equal Education Law Centre and a Herzlia alumnus – briefly mentioned the occupation when addressing the high school’s learners. Principal, Mark Falconer, objected to Linde’s reference to Palestinian human rights, and assured parents that the school would immediately enforce a more rigorous process of vetting future speakers at the school.

In 2014, Joshua Broomberg, the deputy head boy of King David High Victory Park, a Johannesburg-based Jewish day school, faced harsh criticism over his show of support for the Palestinian people, when he wore a keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) while competing at the World Schools Debating Championships. An online petition called for Broomberg’s removal as deputy head boy and as a member of the school’s student representative council. source Afro-Palestine Newswire Service


Mareeg senior news editor since 2001 and he can be reached at news@mareeg.com