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Kneeling down leaves uproar in its wake

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“Regardless of the pros and cons of the specific situation, Herzlia has to be commended for creating an environment where kids feel empowered enough to voice their concerns in public,” tweeted Piet Viljoen this week, one of the lone voices that did not pick a side in the “taking the knee” incident at Herzlia Middle School.
by TALI FEINBERG | Nov 22, 2018

His comment came after two Grade 9 pupils at Herzlia Middle School were disciplined for kneeling down in protest during the singing of Hatikvah at their prize-giving, leading to an international media storm.

In a voice note made public, one of the boys said they decided to protest because, “we don’t support currently what Israel is doing... It’s like in America, when you have NFL players who take a knee during the anthem, they support what the anthem stands for, but they don’t believe the country is fulfilling those ideas, so they can’t stand for it.”

He also said he hoped their actions would bring people more towards the centre of politics, and create greater willingness to talk about Israel’s challenges instead of it being a taboo topic.

But, in many ways, the incident has deepened the fissures in a Cape Town Jewish community that is hurt, angry, and on the defensive.

Said Professor Adam Mendelsohn, Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town: “The episode has exposed existing fault lines, confirming that this is a community that no longer has a consensus view about Israel. But in doing so, it has furthered divisions. We are living in an age of polarisation, social media, and protest by gesture or spectacle. The first and last of these are not new, but all have combined in ways that are distinct to the present moment.”

This means that views are being expressed on social media instead of in safe spaces for debate. “Social media is rarely a place for nuanced discussion, persuasion, and listening. It is good at confirming views and cementing positions. Yes, some good may come of it all, but it will take lots of work from here on out to produce those positives,” he said.

Indeed, social media erupted in response to the pupils’ gesture and the school’s actions. On the one extreme, community member David Hersch said on Facebook, “Expel them and let the shame follow them for the rest of their lives. Their fellow pupils should be encouraged to shun them and their parents as well.”

On the other extreme, many expressed support. Former Herzlia Head Boy Daniel Mackintosh tweeted that he “beamed with pride to read about the #HerzliaTwo, who demonstrated a key Jewish value – having an ‘argument for the sake of heaven’ – for truth. Their bravery is an example to us all on our collective obligation to oppose the #Occupation – well done!”

A hundred Herzlia alumni who opposed the punishment of the pupils signed a letter, saying, “The school’s action betrays the best values of the Jewish tradition, and is a flagrant violation of the students’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression and opinion.” They asked, “Would the line be crossed if the learners had knelt during Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica to protest against state capture?”

Herzlia alumnus Adrienne Jacobson wrote a letter in response, saying, “As a proud Herzlia alumnus, I would like to put my name together with my fellow Herzlia alumni family to a different letter. One that speaks of support, unity, and love for our school which has faced an unprecedented, gruelling challenge this past week. We salute you, Geoff Cohen, the trustees, and the board of governors for your fair leadership and consideration of all factors during this tough time, and for your modelling of our Herzlia values. You have acted with integrity in accordance with the ethos of the school and its values, and we stand together with you.”

In a statement, United Herzlia Schools (UHS) emphasised that it stood for free speech. “UHS emphasises respect and dignity for all... UHS is an academic institution that strives to develop critical thinking as part of its educational offering. We are fortunate to live in a country with a progressive Constitution that allows for people to express their diverse opinions. This should always be conducted with respect for the dignity of others, including those who wish to participate in the school’s traditions and heritage.”

University of Cape Town’s Professor Deborah Posel echoed the need for raising children to be critical thinkers. Regarding the two boys, she said, “They’re opening up important questions about Jewish schools, and are doing so well-informed, from the inside. There are, no doubt, other pupils who would disagree, but that in itself is an opportunity to open things up. Let’s hear these articulate young people. They have important things to say. We may agree or disagree, but they merit the respect given to thoughtful interlocutors in controversial and contentious discussions.”

While the debate rages, school life is carrying on as normal and it appears the actions that these two pupils took are actually insignificant in the bigger picture of school life.

According to South African Zionist Federation Chairman Rowan Polovin, “There is absolutely nothing heroic, noble, or smart about a Jew who kneels in protest whilst Hatikvah is sung. It simply means that they are Jews with trembling knees, afraid of standing up for their own people,” he wrote in a blog post that has since gone viral.

“If they have legitimate criticism of Israel, they ought to stand up and voice it in the appropriate places. Do not falsely claim that there is no space to do so when there are multiple spaces created specifically for discussion and debate. Treat those with whom you disagree respectfully, and they will listen to you respectfully,” he added.

Writing from Israel, Herzlia alumnus Mia Levitt Frank, asked, “Does singing the anthem mean one identifies with a government? I hope not. As an Israeli, I sing Hatikvah with pride, and I hope for a different government. I wish for a society more liberal, more respectful of others, more pluralistic.”

As a psychotherapist, she goes on to explain that the term “identified patient” used in family therapy refers to one family member unconsciously selected to represent a problem in the family system. In organisations, the term is used where an individual or group signifies a problem or complex issue in the system. A courageous family or organisation will conduct deep reflection, and raise questions about their own responsibility.

“Following this idea, the recent incident invites questions to be raised by the leadership of the school. What does it mean to be a Jewish school in the diaspora? Who and what does the school represent? What does it mean to support Israel? How are all streams of Judaism represented in curriculum and activities? How is the concept and complexity of a ‘Jewish democratic state’ addressed? In what way are differences of opinions and dialogue practically encouraged and celebrated in the school? Where and how does social equality play a role in the organisational culture of the school? What are teachers committed to?

She concludes, “I sincerely hope the school as an organisation will grab this opportunity to conduct a deep and open inquiry around the values, norms, and ideologies practiced on a daily basis.”

3 Comments

  1. 3 Devora 22 Nov
    I honestly feel that these two boys should seek education elsewhere. They have total disregard for the Jewish anthem, ethos of the Jewish school. There are other private schools that they should go to. Their insult to the Jewish anthem has nothing to do with politics. This Jewish anthem has been a backbone of the Jewish identity since before the Jewish state.
    They need to be removed from the school.
    They need to know there is always consequences to actions in life.
    TOO MANY PEOPLE FEEL STRONGLY ABOUT THIS
  2. 2 Rodney Mazinter 22 Nov
    Should a lie be treated as free speech?
    My question is meant to be a challenge to all media personnel, and the young men at Herzlia High School who unwittingly allow lies to be spread and cause continuous harm. It has been proven on numerous occasions that Israel is surrounded by hate filled enemies that have no other agenda but the delegitimisation and eventual destruction of the Jewish State; that there is a propaganda and indoctrination strategy that invents stories about Israel that are not true. To offer this as a matter for debate cheapens the truth; by debating it, it  must descend to the level of the original lie.
    The received wisdom is that it is wrong to deny someone who has opinions different to one’s own not to give them an opportunity to test them by debate in the court of public opinion. And that it is wrong to ban even a proven fraud. A lie, they tell me, should be confronted in the marketplace of ideas; that verifiable facts should prove the liar wrong.
    The problem for me is that a deliberate lie is not an idea. It may easily become a dangerous weapon. 20th Century history has shown that those who exploit it don’t belong in a genuine “marketplace of ideas.”
    Unlike some weapons, a lie such as the propaganda being spread about Israel is never used in self-defence, so there is no reason for allowing it. It should be banned, as are other weapons that possess the potential of causing mass murder and destruction.
    I belong to those who believe that lies and libels that set up a group of people as scapegoats, hate targets, potential victims of murder and for extermination, should not be protected as free speech.
  3. 1 Selwyn Levin 22 Nov
    To have an attitude is one thing. To have an opinion is another. And then there is a lttle something called respect.To express an opinon can take many methods, some are easy and verbal other need planning methodology and carefull scripting. Either way there is problably a 100% chance of success of succesful expression,even if it is not the 'popular' thought . Then we have attitude. This is easy. If your attitude is respectfull you will achive so much more than being rude or aggresive. The worst part of aggressive behaviour is ambush behaviour. Firstly it the way a coward would think he has the high ground. It may even have a perceived moment of glory. But in the end the fallout does not have the desired effect . in fact ,it highlights the character of the perpitrator.
    Weak, unable to articulate or debate and of course not even understand the full meaning of their insulting behavior. To insult fellow Jews, your school, your faith, and Hatikvah is nothing short of an abombanation. Sorry, you did nor create debate or bring us closer or any of that rubbish. All you did was play into the hand of the enemies, plural! Start with the antisemites, BDS, and a raft of othe anti Jewish trash out there.
    Well said Mr Polovin!!!!. And to paraphrase . Most Jews stand up, proudly, others collapse on trembling knees, because at the end of the day they are cowards.

    Sadly from my experience I can also add that most pupils who go to Jewish shools and live in Jewish environments actually do not know or understand antisemitism!! Why ??? because they have never tasted it. But that is another story for another day.


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