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The tale of South Africa’s first Jewish school

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United Herzlia Schools (UHS) is a formidable institution as it celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, but when community leaders came together in 1940 with a vision of founding a Jewish school, its future as the first Jewish school in South Africa was anything but clear.

“The most defining moment in the school’s history was the not-so-obvious decision to establish itself,” says Ronnie Gotkin, who has spent 54 years in the Herzlia system as a pupil, teacher and principal, and is the school’s current head of Hebrew.

“At the darkest time in our history, a group of brave pioneers came together in Cape Town and said, ‘Our people will survive – and not only will we survive, we will flourish and ensure that our children will be proud, knowledgeable Jews.’ And so, Herzlia was born.” Today, the school has over 2 000 pupils, and 5 000 graduates.

“As the first Jewish school in South Africa, the founders had to convince parents to enrol their children in the face of concerns about separatism and viability, and they had to find the money to finance a new school and build facilities,’ explains Gotkin.

Solly Berger came to Herzlia in Hope Street in July 1942 at the age of five-and-a-half. “A little known fact is that the first classes in 1940 and 1941 were aborted,” he says. However, over the next few years, the school began to grow. “In 1946, teachers such as Issy Cohen brought a new standard of teaching. Sport was introduced, houses were established, and the badge of Herzlia was designed after a competition, and is basically the same badge that exists today.

“Once the school had been established, the challenge became the location and purchase of a suitable site for a large school and for its construction,” says Gotkin. “The current campus was inaugurated in 1956, the same year that Herzlia graduated its very first matric class. Other defining moments were the incorporation of the primary school campuses, and the construction of a middle school. Facilities improved dramatically over the years.”

Herzlia’s first head boy, Jack Schneider, recalls how he joined the school in 1946, “There were around 140 kids in the school at the time, roughly 20 of us in a class, with one class per grade. I landed up being head prefect at Herzlia every year for six years. Our subject choice was small: English, Afrikaans, Hebrew, Bookkeeping, Science, History, and Geography. When I got to matric, there were only seven of us in the class and we were all boys.”

A Herzlia hostel was also established in 1940. Berger recalls: “Coming from the back woods of the northern suburbs of Cape Town, my father sent me to the hostel at the tender age of five. The hostel was primarily for children from country areas. Among the boarders were Louis and Solly Kreiner – future mayors of Cape Town.”

As the years went on, “We saw an explosion of numbers in our student body so much so that almost 80% of Cape Town’s Jewish children attended the school,” says past Herzlia principal Solly Kaplinski. “Herzlia thus became a true community school embracing all sectors of the community – from the Orthodox to the Reform to the unaffiliated – as well as accommodating students from right across the academic spectrum, and opening our doors to students of colour.

“One lasting memory I have is of almost 800 high school students and staff having to evacuate the school as a result of a bomb threat. Students led this exodus with the Sifrei Torah proudly held high and carried them to safety,” he recalls.

David Ginsberg, current UHS director of finance and administration, says: “When I joined as bursar in 1988, I was only 32 years old and it was quite a big responsibility. I later learnt that the ladies in the office had a bet that I wouldn’t last more than six months!”

“The profession of school business management was in its infancy still, and we had to adapt systems used in commerce. We cut our own path and many schools followed in our footsteps. In those days we still had a Kalamazoo cash book, and one computer. Each term, the fees were invoiced by hand and posted to parents.

“The school is primarily a social enterprise dedicated to optimising each pupil’s potential, yet running on business principles. This of course is much like mixing oil and water,” he says. “The late Eliot Osrin founded the Herzlia Foundation Trust in 1972, and often advised us on fundraising matters. He is remembered saying: ‘It’s in the asking’, and ‘The more you ask, the more you get’, much like Gary Player’s famous saying that ‘the more you practise, the luckier you get’.”

Jim Goodacre was the principal of Herzlia Constantia from 1984 until 1998. “I joined as deputy principal in January 1979, in spite of warnings from Jewish parents at my previous school that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the demanding parents and badly-behaved children. They were wrong. The parents and children were fine and I lasted for more than 19 years – although I once climbed out of my office window one Friday afternoon when I saw a particularly difficult parent coming through the front gate!

“In 1979, Herzlia Constantia was packed with over 500 children. In my 42 years of teaching in very good primary schools in England and Cape Town, it stood out. In 1984, I had the honour of becoming Herzlia’s first non-Jewish principal. In 1981, we twinned with Nomlinganiselo Primary School from New Crossroads. Over the years, this developed into a successful and mutually rewarding outreach programme.

“Herzlia Constantia was chosen to be the pilot school for the introduction of Jewish children with special needs into mainstream education,” recalls Goodacre. “Not everyone was in favour of adopting this policy. As it turned out, there were very few problems: the other children soon befriended their new classmates, and one of the girls was crowned Victrix Ludorum at our swimming gala. If I remember correctly, all the children in this first group finished high school.”

Herzlia went on to become a leader of inclusive education.

“Looking ahead, one of the biggest challenges the school faces is to ensure that a Herzlia education meets the challenges of the 21st century,” says Gotkin. “Within the constraints of an externally-prescribed curriculum, Herzlia has kept pace with these changes. It recently established an Innovation Centre to ensure that a Herzlia education remains relevant, challenging, and meaningful. The school is also looking very carefully at ways in which it can benefit from the experience and learning acquired during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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SA government and politicians show bias as Israel conflict escalates

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As Israel faced a steady bombardment of deadly rockets fired by terrorist groups in Gaza this week, the South African government, politicians, and activists condemned the Jewish state, ignoring the myriad complexities of the violence.

And as Hamas escalated its barrage of rockets targeting innocent civilians, to which Israel retaliated, there has been no condemnation of Hamas from either the South African government or any of its politicians.

Israel’s right to defend itself and diffuse tensions in a bid to save the lives of all its citizens including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hasn’t been acknowledged by the government in its condemnation of the Jewish state.

Siding wholly with the Palestinians, the government earlier this week expressed its “deep concern at the continued clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque wherein Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian worshippers while praying at the holy site”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters said it noted “the genocide” committed by Israel against the Palestinian people during Ramadan, saying “We condemn with contempt the violence perpetrated by the apartheid Israeli state on unarmed Palestinian people.” It called on the government to close down the South African embassy in Israel and recall all its representatives there.

No mention has been made about Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque stockpiling rocks, fireworks, and stone slabs around the site in preparation for violence and attacking Israeli police.

Focusing all its attention on the land dispute and potential eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the government ignored a multitude of issues that have contributed to the rising wave of violence since April.

The department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement saying, “The South African government strongly condemns the attacks and planned evictions of Palestinians from annexed East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements.

“It’s perplexing that during these unprecedented times, as the international community addresses the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel is exploiting the situation to advance its de facto annexation of Palestinian land. These acts aren’t only illegal but also risk undermining the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and will have negative consequences on the entire peace process.”

In response to this, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the government, all political parties, and the media to show “even-handedness” and acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

In a joint statement, SAJBD National Chairperson Wendy Kahn and SAZF Chairperson Rowan Polovin, said, “In their determination to condemn Israel come what may, the government has reversed cause and effect. The reality – and not for the first time – is that the initial clashes were deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership and have now culminated in a lethal barrage of missile fire on Jerusalem and other heavily populated cities.

“Rockets are indiscriminate. They imperil the lives of all who live in the Holy City, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim. In spite of this, the South African government has chosen to single out Israel for exclusive condemnation, disregarding completely the more than 1 200 deadly rockets fired thus far against Israeli civilians.

“The double standards don’t stop there. Whereas countries throughout the world sent condolences to Israel following the tragic loss of 45 lives in Meron, South Africa has yet to follow suit even two weeks later. However, within 24 hours, it was able to issue a statement condemning Israel.

“If the government, and indeed all political parties, wish to be part of ending this latest tragic outburst of violence, they must show genuine even-handedness. Those who unquestioningly endorse the claims and actions of one side while completely ignoring those of the other do nothing to resolve the conflict. In fact, they only make a bad situation worse.”

They went on to say that demonising Israel, as was the case with certain statements, was “irresponsible, inflammatory, and dangerous”.

The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, told the SA Jewish Report that no country in the world would tolerate this level of terror.

He has called on the international community and South Africa to condemn the rocket fire and Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli citizens in the “strongest manner”, as well as to support Israel’s right to self-defence.

Keinan said that these events were part of a “wave of terror” that was being led by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and were the result of “reckless and irresponsible incitement to violence”.

Concerning earlier violence, he said, “Israel sought to achieve calm in Jerusalem. We took every measure to prevent conflict or violence and to allow freedom of worship. These measures include postponing the Supreme Court hearing regarding Sheikh Jarrah, blocking Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, changing the route of the flag march, and then cancelling the event. Moreover, Israel acted in a measured manner in response to the rockets and incendiary balloons that had been launched from the Gaza Strip to prevent any escalation during this sensitive period.”

He said responsibility for the situation rested completely with Palestinian terrorist organisations and “on the unrestrained incitement by the Palestinian Authority”.

“No country will allow rockets to be fired on its children, women, and men. Israel will take any action necessary to protect its citizens. It’s the right and the duty of every state.”

Meanwhile, small protests were held by pro-Palestinian groups at the Israel Trade Offices in Sandton, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, all of which blamed Israel for being solely responsible for the violence.

Interestingly, in an open letter to DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor, the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Coalition said it was “extremely disappointed” by DIRCO’s statement about the conflict, calling for more action by the government.

The Democratic Alliance said Israel must “employ maximum restraint in the use of force” adding “violence from both sides must cease in the interest of peace, saving lives, and protecting the human rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people”.

Dr Corne Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus said, “The ANC government has never tried to hide its hostility towards Israel, and has now once again chosen the terrorist side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s time for the ANC to honour Israel’s sovereignty.

“It’s lamentable that the South African government is always so quick to side with Israel’s opponents and condemn the country,” he said.

In Cape Town, a protest organised by Africa4Palestine (formerly BDS SA), brought a number of anti-Israel groups together. But only about 200 members of the public gathered to condemn Israel, many of them children.

Speaking in front of parliament, the late Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela called for the closure of the South African embassy in Israel. “We are clearly asking South Africa not to downgrade its embassy in Israel, but to close it down!” he shouted to cheers from the crowd. “We also want to deny [Israeli international carrier] El Al from coming into South Africa!” he said to more cheers of support.

He called for South Africans to “boycott products from apartheid Israel. The only thing we expect from our government is to place sanctions on apartheid Israel!” He then called on the crowd to join him on 18 July in Pretoria (the date marked to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy) outside the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. “We want to see it shut down and for the ambassador to leave. We won’t compromise,” Mandela said.

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Rise in anti-Israel sentiment leads to calls for vigilance

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The Community Security Organisation (CSO) has witnessed a marked increase in anti-Israel rhetoric as well as expressions of hate directed at Jews online following violence in Israel, and has appealed to the community to be extra vigilant and report all incidents.

Jevon Greenblatt, the director of CSO Johannesburg, told the SA Jewish Report on 12 May that tension in Israel had escalated dramatically over the past few days, with levels of open conflict growing exponentially over the past 48 hours.

“It’s not uncommon for anti-Israel anger around a situation like this to spill over into diaspora Jewish communities,” he said.

“Since Monday, we have seen a significant increase in concerning online rhetoric and numerous protest action called for over the coming days across South Africa.

“We are seeing a huge campaign by the anti-Israel lobby to dehumanise Israel with massive distortions about what’s really happening on the ground.”

Political leaders, social-media influencers, and celebrities are lending their voices to the pro-Palestinian lobby.

“This creates the perfect environment for a potential lone-wolf actor to carry out an attack. Whenever something like this takes place, our concern is that the anger created can be misdirected against the local community.”

He said that while CSO staff and volunteers were working hard to ensure the continued safety and security of the community, it was a “collective effort”.

“Vigilance is crucial. We should always make sure our facilities are as secure as possible, and we should always be doing the best we can to strengthen our security.

“It’s at times like this that we are reminded always to implement the best safety protocols because the threat is always out there.

“It requires the active participation of all community members. We ask you to maintain heightened awareness and report any emergency, potential threats, suspicious activity, or antisemitism related to the Jewish community or Jewish facilities to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 (or 086 18 911 18 in Cape Town).”

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Guarding Jerusalem from the “end of the end” of Israel

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The Golan is the true gatekeeper of Jerusalem, particularly in mitigating against the Iranian threat across the border, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Major (Res) Yaakov Selevan said during a talk to commemorate Yom Yerushalayim this week.

“People who live in the Golan claim that it’s the most naturally beautiful region in Israel. But they aren’t living here for the views; they are here because there is something for which they’re willing to die – the redemption of the heart of the Jewish people.”

Selevan, a Jerusalem born-and-bred military official who now works as a tour guide and public speaker, was hosted for the webinar by Mizrachi SA and the South African Zionist Federation, in collaboration with other partners.

Although Selevan grew up with “the Western Wall as my backyard”, he now lives with his wife and three daughters in the Golan. Over the years, he has come to realise how deeply intertwined the fates of these two Israeli regions are.

Logistically, the Golan has always been a key strategic point, both in its proximity to neighbouring countries and major water sources, including the Sea of Galilee. Politically, its significance is even greater.

Even in the Roman era, when Roman soldiers were unable to penetrate the Jewish resistance in Jerusalem, they elected to try and attack from the periphery and move down. At the time, the Golan was rich in Jewish life with more than 30 synagogues. In the year 67, in spite of the efforts of Jewish revolutionaries, after a number of attempts, the Romans did overtake the ancient city of Gamla in the Golan. “They killed more than 4 000 Jews. Jewish independence fell, and then the Romans started moving down towards the heart of the land – Jerusalem. Three years later, we know, the second temple was destroyed.”

Fast forward thousands of years, when the Golan was redeemed from Syrian control by the IDF in the 1967 war, a number of fascinating ancient Jewish artefacts were found. The most striking of which was an ancient coin from the era of the Jewish revolt against Roman control. Engraved in Hebrew, its inscription reads “for the redemption of Jerusalem, the holy”.

In the modern political landscape, the Golan remains a contested hotspot particularly in relation to Iran and its ongoing incursions into the borderlands of Lebanon and Syria.

Selevan said that for many years, Iran had also used Israel and Jews symbolically as a strategy to forge allegiances across Muslim and Arab states that otherwise would be divided across Sunni and Shiite ethnic lines. These distinctions are derived from a dispute over the line of succession after Muhammed.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, “Iran wanted to ‘export the revolution’, and it realised it had a problem. While they were Shiites, most of the people around them were Sunni.” So, said Selevan, they chose a “common interest – the holy city of Jerusalem. Who controls the old city of Jerusalem? The filthy Zionists.” Moreover, as enemies across the Arab world sought ways to attack Israel, they turned to Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.

Iran remains a threat to Israel on a number of levels, Selevan said. The first is its nuclear programme; the second its Precision Guided Munitions project, which designs missiles that use GPS to hit specific targets. Third, is its political take over and proxy power in various countries like Lebanon and Yemen. The next key territory which Iran is looking to control in the region is Syria, itself riddled by a civil war that has been appropriated by a myriad of interests.

In Lebanon, Iran controls networks of tunnels and occupied villages where local people are being used as human shields and whose homes are utilised for the storage of missiles and rockets. It hopes to use the chaos in Syria to take over using a similar model.

However, along with military action, Israel has made huge inroads diplomatically to prevent this, Selevan said.

“Iran used us and Jerusalem as a common interest, a common enemy, and a step in the door to the Sunni world. However, in the past few years, with what’s happening just here in Syria, people in the region are seeing what the Iranians are doing and how they’re taking over this region. They realise that they are next in line: Saudi Arabia, even Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, all these countries said, ‘Oh my G-d, all these years, we thought the Jews were the problem. Now we understand the greatest threat is the Shiites. Who can help us against the Shiites? The Jews!’”

Israel has thus turned Iran into the common interest which is “our step in the door of the Muslim world”. The most recent result is the Abraham Accords peace agreements, said Selevan.

Israel has another way in which it continues to forge towards peace – humanitarian aid.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has helped, offering medical services and distributing food, clothing, and other products for basic needs, proving, “you can stop Iran with baby diapers”.

At its core, the motivation for the action is humanitarian, said Selevan. “We did it because we’re Jewish; we cannot stand by when we see people suffering.”

Nevertheless, it also had an impact on political engagement. Terror groups, such as those under Iranian control, are reliant on local populations for support, access to land, and soldiers. As Israel continues to reach out to her neighbours, “there’s a whole generation growing up in Syria knowing that we’re not the devil”.

Although this doesn’t mean there aren’t still many who are against Israel and are manipulating the aid system, nevertheless there are shifts. For Selevan, this is encompassed by a drawing made by a seven-year-old Syrian Muslim girl. Her portrait of the Israel flag, captioned in Arabic, thanks the Israeli who saved her life.

In spite of the huge upswing of attacks on Israel in recent days, Selevan said he was hopeful. His life in the Golan is a contract between him, his country, and his community.

“I’m here at the end of the end of the end of the country because someone needs to be here, because my community is the greatest answer to the Iranian threat. That’s my purpose. That’s my essence.” Holding out a replica of the Jewish-revolt-era coin, Selevan asserted, “Each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves: what’s my job in the redemption of Jerusalem?”

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