Herzlia alumni “condemn” punishment of students who protested

Letter of support written for two learners that knelt during the Israeli national anthem

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

In response to the news of disciplinary action being taken against two grade nine learners who took a knee during the playing of the Israeli national anthem, a group of Herzlia alumni penned a two-page letter condemning the school’s actions and expressing support for the learners. The letter was signed by over 100 Herzlia alumni, including “five former head or deputy-head boys or girls”.

In the letter, titled “Herzlia Alumni Support Freedom of Thought and Peaceful Expression of Dissent”, the alumni write that they “condemn in the strongest terms the school’s recent decision to discipline and publicly call to order students for peacefully protesting against Israeli political policy”.

The alumni note that Herzlia’s response to the students is “not surprising”, claiming that their education was “deliberately one sided” on Israel and Palestine.

This criticism is echoed by one of the two learners, Joseph (GroundUp is not printing his surname because he is under 18), who in a public voice note, said that they (the two learners) felt they were being “forced to stand and sing for an anthem we felt like we couldn’t because of our principle beliefs”, saying that they interpreted standing as a “sign of support for the Israeli anthem”.

The learner also expressed that the school “has a big problem with restriction of information”.

“When the teachers teach you stuff, they only teach you one side of the story. So while a Jewish life teacher may say ‘oh no it’s totally fine for you to talk about pro-Palestine ideas’, he’s only going to teach you pro-Israel ideas inside that class.”

In 2016, Herzlia High School principal Marc Falconer, sent an email addressed to the Herzlia community following a speech given by lawyer for Equal Education and alumnus, Daniel Linde, citing that parts of Linde’s address were “unacceptable” due to his mention of Palestine.

Falconer wrote that Linde briefly referred to his organisation’s alignment with what he referred to as “the Palestinian Struggle” and that this “constituted an unacceptable and unexpected hijacking of the agreed topic”. He went on to say that the school was “not rigorous enough to pre-screen and control what is and is not acceptable rhetoric at a formal school assembly”.

Both the learners and the alumni group express criticism, but also hope to foster conversation amongst their larger communities.

Joseph said he hopes that “once this all dies down, people will be closer to the middle” and be able to “engage in a positive manner” about issues relating to Israel and Palestine.

A person close to the family of one of the learners told GroundUp that “believing in Israel’s right to exist and defend itself does not mean having to support the current government’s policy of occupation and subjugation of a people” and that communities should be “incredibly proud” of the learners and “the courage it must have taken to take a stand in an environment that does not provide for free expression”.

They said that while the learners have experienced support, there is a “vocal minority that is intolerant and extremely rude”.

The alumni write that while they are “deeply disappointed” in Herzlia’s actions, they are “hopeful” the school will “carefully consider whether it has taken the right course of action” and “apologise for rebuking and punishing the children”.

GroundUp received a list of sanctions taken against the learners. These are: the students could not wear their colours for six months nor represent Herzlia for six months. They must write two 3,000 word essays, write an apology letter, attend four meetings with elected community members, and are not permitted to attend grade nine farewell. They also may not talk to the media.

Herzlia director of Education, Geoff Cohen, could not verify the list of sanctions for “the interest of the pupils’ privacy and protection”. But he told GroundUp that the “parents and pupils reached a mutual agreement with the school, and both pupils apologised for hurt and offense caused”.

Further, Cohen noted “Herzlia Middle School staff take all pupils’ views and emotions seriously and have engaged them to contribute their thoughts on this incident and help us construct the way forward”.

TOPICS:  Education Human Rights

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