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Secular school scholars deal with anti-Israel sentiment



It has been a lonely experience for many Jewish scholars at secular private or government schools following the recent conflict in the Middle East. For some it has been tumultuous and for others, eye-opening.

Schools are meant to be politically impartial spaces, but there have been reports of pro-Palestinian activism at some schools and an atmosphere of intimidation and fear mainly online, said Professor Karen Milner, the Gauteng chair of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

“We have been approached by several people mainly concerned with online bullying. This was directed at school children, university students, and adults at small businesses,” she said.

Incidents with school kids typically happen within chat groups or on formal social-media platforms such as Instagram. “A child would experience online bullying and mocking even though they responded to a post politely,” Milner said.

From the Board’s reports, it never moved beyond the online space, but “online bullying is still unacceptable, it’s a form of intimidation”, said Milner.

Schools have increasingly focused on the conflict in the region, with some head teachers taking measures to safeguard kids against prejudice and antisemitism. It forced teachers to confront the issue and see it as a learning opportunity, especially when children may have been subjected to one-sided, often offensive, and sometimes antisemitic material.

Tzvi Brivik, the chairperson of the Cape SAJBD, said it had been an intense time for students at schools and universities like the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, and the AAA School of Advertising.

“Kids have been targeted online with material which may not fit the description of antisemitism, but still amounts to bullying,” he said.

Brivik said there had definitely been an uptick in reports of offensive material being posted online over the past few weeks.

“There has also been the misuse of academic WhatsApp groups for political ends. Students post anti-Israel material on groups designed for sharing academic information.”

When students post an Israeli flag, he said, it’s usually followed by a slew of online commentary “which can be very hurtful”.

“Our approach in the Cape has always been to try build bridges, and there have been some good examples of this taking place at schools in Cape Town.”

Two Cape schools stand out in this regard.

Rustenburg School for Girls in Rondebosch invited Rabbi Osher Feldman of the Gardens Shul together with two imams and a priest to address the girls.

“There is a diverse student body, and the school was struggling with how things were playing out in the classroom, so they asked us to come,” said Feldman this week.

“Many girls were wearing ‘Free Palestine’ masks. It was clearly a big issue for them,” he said.

The faith leaders were led onto the field where there were hundreds of girls.

“We each said a prayer for peace and spoke about the importance of peace in our respective faiths. It was about transcending our differences for the purpose of a shared humanity, and recognising and respecting the humanity of the other.

“What was probably more impactful for the students was the way in which the four of us interacted with one another in a respectful, jovial manner. It was an eye-opener for them to see us up there, getting along and coming together. We showed them how we could be on different sides and hold different views, but we could still speak to one another as human beings. It was powerful and profound for them,” Feldman said.

Kai Amos, 17, the head of the Jewish Student Association at Rondebosch Boys High School, decided that if kids came to school wearing pro-Palestinian masks, he, too, could show support for Israel.

“Some of the Jewish guys and others talked to the head teacher in charge about the best way forward [to encourage] harmony at school. We met with the Muslim Student Association and the principal, and it was decided that we could have a week to show solidarity with whichever side.”

Kai and his mother, Carmen, approached the South African Zionist Federation, which provided them with Israeli bracelets, masks, and badges which were handed out to those who wanted to take part.

“It was a very enlightening experience. There was no aggression, everyone was respectful. Discussions were held in Memorial Hall during societies period before break, and a sizeable number of boys attended. These discussions were facilitated by the head of the history society, and they weren’t heated,” he said.

Said Carmen, “My kids have young cousins in Israel who have been traumatised, so when my younger saw son disturbing videos of injured Palestinian children on social media, I explained that children were suffering on both sides. This seemed to resonate.”

A mother who wished to remain anonymous said her 16-year-old daughter had found the past few weeks traumatic.

“In the beginning at school she felt isolated, intimidated, and harassed. She was mortified by her friends’ Instagram posts which showed only one side of the conflict, and became quite anxious. Things have calmed down, but she will never forget this time.”

A father who spoke on condition of anonymity has two sons at two different high schools in Johannesburg. For them, it has been an opportunity to learn about the conflict, and has forced them to become knowledgeable.

“I was concerned for both my boys because they were brought into real-world engagement and had to hold their own. They faced the tension up front, and saw first-hand what they will come up against in future. It was intense.

“The biggest issue is what is posted online. It leaves little space for face-to-face conversations which would give children the opportunity to explore their feelings. Offensive and hurtful stuff happens between friend groups, and this becomes tricky. I encouraged my children not to engage with any hate online.”

One Grade 9 boy told the SA Jewish Report he felt “uncomfortable” when prefects asked kids during early morning line-up to keep Palestine in their thoughts.

“It was hurtful and insensitive because they don’t know the full story,” he said.

“Boys that I thought I was close to were also putting up ‘Free Palestine’ posts on their stories and this surprised me. There’s nothing I can do about it, it’s their opinion,” he said.

“There are a few other Jewish boys, but they feel they’d rather stay quiet because they don’t know enough and don’t want to say the wrong thing, even though they get upset.

“I like to talk about the conflict and present an alternative view. I’m not afraid. A Muslim boy in my class posted a lot of one-sided pro-Palestinian stuff online, and when I told him I was Jewish, he said that I didn’t seem Jewish. In his mind, Jews are all scary people who are violent and want to take everything over.”

Said Milner, “People are entitled to express solidarity with either side in the conflict without being harassed and bullied.”

She advises children and students to make sure they are informed when engaging with someone who has posted damaging lies online.

“Engagement should be done in a responsible, respectful manner. There is no benefit to getting into slurs and hate.”

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