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Principal targeted in Redhill’s anti-Israel flare-up

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Joburg’s multi-faith, multi-cultural Redhill School this week attempted to pick up the pieces after angry pro-Palestinian alumni and students attacked the principal for trying to calm rising tension around the Middle East conflict.

Though there is chit chat between classes and sport and extra mural activities continue just like the news cycle – which has moved onto other things – the school’s executive head, Joseph Gerassi, his staff, and students are still reeling from a torrid week which threatened to tear the forward-thinking school apart.

Professor Karen Milner of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies said some of the Jewish parents were justifiably frazzled. “This was a big event in our community. It’s an important issue because it brought children into the conflict at school level, and had an impact on their lives,” she said.

“Parents were worried about physical altercations breaking out as well as their children’s sense of psychological safety and sense of inclusion at the school,” she said.

There was a general sense of disquiet on campus as children processed last week’s pro-Palestinian protest outside the school during the early morning drop-off on Thursday, 20 May. Dozens of young adults descended on the school dressed in pro-Palestinian garb, some wearing old school blazers, waving flags, and chanting popular anti-Israel slogans.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” was repeated often. This popular Palestinian slogan rejects the right of Israel to exist and calls for all of the land of Israel to be given to Palestinians. The slogan is considered an insensitive, hurtful anti-Jewish battle cry.

The co-ed private school took a beating as alumni shoved the school’s progressive headmaster under the school bus, accusing him of shutting down free speech. He denied that was his intention, and said he did what he believed was the right thing to do.

“As an educator, I have the right to de-escalate what I might see becoming a major bullying problem. If I don’t do that and a child is badly bullied or hurt, I could have a parent say that I could have foreseen it. Then I become liable,” he said.

While on leave last week, Gerassi was informed by senior staff and parents that there was a build-up of emotion within the school as tension over the conflict in the Middle East reached fever pitch. Some children were being harassed. Parents, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being harassed themselves, said some children felt alienated and intimidated by incessant social-media posts from friends and classmates.

“Some parents were writing to me saying that things were starting to build up, and children were saying things that were cruel to one another,” said Gerassi.

Foreseeing that the situation might escalate out of control, Gerassi sent a letter to his staff and parent body.

He wrote that it was an “incredibly contentious and divisive issue”, saying that he felt it was his obligation to ensure the conflict didn’t also tear people apart within the Redhill community.

“Let me say that I don’t believe that this issue shouldn’t be discussed and debated,” his letter read. “However, given the emotions currently surrounding this crisis and the age of our children, I don’t believe there is anything to be gained from having them argue and debate with each other.

“At such a sensitive time, emotions tend to run high and assumptions tend to be made about people based on their religious and ethnic backgrounds. Making such assumptions is dangerous, can create divisions within our community, and more importantly, fragment friendship groups that have taken years to build.”

He urged families to encourage their children not to discuss the issue at school.

His intention, he told the SA Jewish Report, was to wait until safe spaces could be created at the school which would enable children to debate openly and respectfully with one another.

The letter sparked outrage among some parents and their children. It was shared, and spread quickly online.

In a flash, the school’s untarnished reputation was dragged through the twisting tunnels of hate on Twitter. One former alumni, Kelly-Jo Bluen, tweeted, “As a Jewish former head girl of @RedhillSchool, I am absolutely appalled by this virulent Zionist, racist, antisemitic incursion on freedom of speech at the school and policing of students. All alumni should immediately withdraw financial support from the school as a start.”

That was mild.

Gerassi’s online presence and every past utterance he has made has been scrutinised for potential bias. A protest against censorship was called for by the alumni, many of whom belong to the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee.

“The context of my letter has to be taken into account. I was writing first and foremost to my community, not to the press out there, not to other schools, and not to the government. I was writing this after I had loads of parents asking me for advice,” Gerassi said.

“All I was asking for was time to be able to bring in specialists who could work with our kids on creating safe spaces where children would be able to have an opinion but there would also be facilitators to moderate if things got out of control,” he said.

“It’s all very well for journalists to think every child at school is a bastion of maturity who can sit down with their sandwich at break and have a well thought out argument. Those of us who have been in education know that doesn’t take place. Not when you have these kinds of issues.”

One parent who wished to remain anonymous said the alumni had another agenda. “It was clear that this issue was hijacked and there was always another agenda. It was a pro-Palestinian protest by young adults more intent on demonising Israel than calling for freedom of speech.”

The posters screamed, “End the occupation”, “Boycott apartheid Israel”, “Condemn the genocide”, “Zionism is racism”. There were one or two which alluded to free speech, which said, “We will not be silent.”

Being Jewish himself didn’t help Gerassi either. Nor did it help that he had been interviewed by this newspaper after winning an Absa Jewish Achiever Award. This was added to posts online. So too was the fact that he had previously been headmaster at King David Victory Park.

“Had Gerassi come out strongly in support of Palestine, everything would have been fine,” said one Jewish parent who also wished to remain anonymous, “The fact that he was neutral and unbiased was held against him. He was trying to diffuse a divisive and emotional situation.”

A bruised and vulnerable Gerassi said, “I’m ok. I’ve managed to get past the hurt of this becoming personal. There were a lot of attacks on me personally, you get through that, and you realise the most important thing is Redhill, and I have to get things back together again.”

What hurt him the most was when he tried to reach out to students and alumni – many of whom he knew very well and had close relationships with – to engage with them before the protest took place, and they refused.

“I was terribly disappointed in that. When you purport to believe so much in healthy debate and you’ve been at a school that has had so much debate, surely the first thing you do is phone Mr Gerassi and engage on the subject.”

Gerassi said that before mid-term break, the school would hold a full-day workshop of presentations and dialogue by experts in the field.

“The presentations will educate our students on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as explain the different narratives and perspectives. Students will be given the opportunity to ask questions in a safe space and make comments in an environment that will allow for healthy debate and respectful engagement and which will be mediated by experienced facilitators.”

One parent said his children had become prouder to be Jewish, and had started to wear their Star of David necklaces. “We chose not to send our kids to school on the day of the protest, it was all too much for them,” he said.

“If it became heated, they weren’t equipped to defend themselves amongst the anger and name calling. School might be back to ‘normal’ but there is a lot of damage this has torn friendships apart,” he said.

One Jewish child who wished to remain anonymous told the SA Jewish Report, “Kids were discussing this issue which didn’t directly affect their lives and which they will forget about in a week or two. But what they didn’t realise was how the antisemitic rhetoric affected some of their Jewish classmates, and that lasts longer than a week or two.”

Understanding the passion of youth, and in spite of the hurt, Gerassi said he would always be available to chat to the same students who were angry with him. “I will always hold my hand out to them,” he said.

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