After Herzlia, SA Jewish community must look inward on Israel

Entrance to Herzlia Middle School, a Jewish school in Cape Town. Photo: Google Street View (public domain)

Entrance to Herzlia Middle School, a Jewish school in Cape Town. Photo: Google Street View (public domain)

A former Herzlia student feels the school should be a reflection of the diversity of South African Jews.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two pupils from Herzlia High School in Cape Town were recently at the centre of a controversy regarding their decision to ‘bend the knee‘ during the singing of the Israeli anthem, Hatikva. This column is written by a former pupil of the school, who matriculated last year. 

Why does it take two boys kneeling during the Israeli national anthem to force our Jewish community to start looking inward? Has it even achieved that? This isn’t the first act of this kind. Students have tried to shift the narrative before: they have demonstrated their discontent and, in response, been reprimanded and punished throughout the years. This time it hasn’t been swept under the carpet.

When I heard about the recent protest during a Grade Nine valedictory, I initially felt a sense of pride and admiration for the boys who did this. This feeling quickly turned to one of concern and trouble when I thought about the consequences they were to face, reminiscent of those I had faced before them, and the Jewish community of Cape Town and Herzlia’s reaction was true to form. 

The role of a school in a community is important.

This role is particularly significant in Herzlia’s case, as the school is at the epicentre of the community, and in many ways contains and connects it.

It should, then, be a reflection of this diversity of South African Jews, an institution we can all be proud to be connected to, and one that represents a community that we can all be proud members of. This is not the case.

South African Jewry is in a unique position, with almost all of its grandparents and most of its parents having lived through apartheid. We are therefore connected both to the legacies of our own suffering and to the suffering of others under apartheid.

Being a Jew, in the context of a nation still grappling with the brutality of apartheid, raises new moral imperatives about acts committed in our name. We should be able to ask questions about our identities in relation to the discourse that surrounds issues of Israel and Zionism. 

Surely our histories in relation to suffering should sharpen our empathy for the Palestinian experience and our willingness for critical thought? One would hope there is empathy at least, however, real discussions on the issue are remarkably absent from our schools, our synagogues, and our dinner tables.  

Along with this, it is also useful to discuss the Jewish tradition of resistance around the world. No greater examples of this exist than South Africans such as Dennis Goldberg, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Helen Suzman and Ronnie Kasrils, to name a few.

Their capacities to stand up for justice have always been points of pride within the community. Now, however, the spirit of these voices is being repressed by those who celebrate their place in our legacy.

It is devastatingly ironic, then, that at Herzlia – the place where the community’s youth grow up and learn – students are not encouraged to speak their truth and deconstruct the regimented narrative, by celebrating their diverse views and challenging one another.

There’s an old Jewish adage that says, “If you put two Jews in a room, they will come out with three different opinions.” Despite this, when confronted with questions of Israel and Zionism, we tend to get coy and restrict our open-mindedness and bravery of thought. So much so that critiquing it is misconstrued as “antisemitism”, resulting in dissenting voices being silenced.  

I believe there is a severe and dangerous conflation of Judaism with Zionism in our community. It is critical therefore to note that, unlike Judaism, Zionism is not an ancient culture or belief structure. It is a political ideology that is only a few hundred years old. Yet, it plays such a central role in toxifying the discourse within our community.

We can be critical of Israel and be Jewish.

We can choose not to identify as Zionist and be Jewish.

We can support the freedom and safety of both the Palestinian and Jewish people, and be Jewish.

Zionism does not have to involve support for Israel that is uncritical.

It can even be argued that to criticise Israel is, in fact, something a true Zionist must do, as it shows one cares about Israel so much that they want to improve it and hold it to standards of justice.

It is highly unusual and perhaps problematic that an educational institution contains within its pillars a political ideology, which it imposes on its students, through mostly one-sided education.

It is inappropriate and unreasonable to assume that they will then keep their criticisms quiet, their protests hidden, and their “pride” and “gratitude” to the school strong.

To educate carries the responsibility of academic engagement with students holistically towards the promotion of free, informed thought.

Rather than punish students who have taken up this challenge independently, the actions of these students should lead to long-awaited discussions on the multifaceted nature of Zionism, to explore Israel and its politics, and to delve into the complexities of ‘the conflict’? These students are, after all, the future of our community.

Herzlia’s approach to the Zionist question is symptomatic of a broader issue within Jewish circles that some of us have known for too long. 

There is an unspoken rule: do not oppose the hegemonic view on Israel and if you do, do it quietly. Now, hopefully that might be changing.

The first step in solving any problem, is recognising there is one. 

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