Defend Truth


Herzlia: Some forms of protest are simply inappropriate


Dominique writes and edits on a freelance basis. She grew up in Cape Town and studied journalism at New York University. After nine years in the US, UK and Spain, she returned to SA in 2004 and joined the Cape Times as a senior staff writer. A book of photographs and interviews with high-profile South Africans that she put together, entitled Perfect Weekend, was published in 2009.

Surely there’s a more meaningful way to protest that doesn’t simply gain the protesters notoriety while acting as a completely divisive force in a community that is already under scrutiny and siege by many outside of it looking to pounce on any perceived or real misstep.

In a school where intellectual pursuits are highly valued, where articulation and debate are prized, it struck me as odd that a couple of middle schoolers would mimic the protest actions of an American football star rather than argue their case.

It also struck me as odd that Saul and Samuel Musker should assert that disciplinary action taken in response to this recent incident at Herzlia is “part of a long history of similar repression, intimidation, and humiliation of students at South African Jewish schools”.

In their piece, Herzlia must apologise for its suppression of debate, they describe the recent incident where two Grade 9 students at Herzlia Middle School “bravely took a knee” at a school prize-giving during the Israeli national anthem. The Israeli anthem is sung at important Herzlia events after the South African national anthem.

The two Muskers write: “The students should be praised rather than punished for their actions. For one, they are right to question some of the clear injustices that are perpetrated by the state of Israel. For another, a school should nurture and instil in its students the important skills of critical thought and engagement in the world, together with a conviction in one’s beliefs.”

As someone who went to Herzlia for all 12 years of her primary and secondary schooling, all I can say is, what are they talking about? I know from experience that Herzlia is a school highly conducive to discourse and encouraging of debate.

I am not a wholesale fan of everything Herzlia stands for and delivers, but it is certainly a place where becoming an independent thinker is promoted, where self-expression is championed and social/charitable engagement celebrated. And any attempt to dispel that notion – especially by people who weren’t schooled there – is disingenuous at best and malicious at worst.

For anyone who has spent time in the company of Herzlians, even the idea that the school could repress critical thought is, quite frankly, laughable.

I’m struggling to understand in what way the behaviour of the students was “brave”? To my mind, and I’m sure many others, it seems an unabashed grab at attention seeking and grandstanding.

There’s a difference between expressing oneself and being disrespectful. The school does not force blind support of Israel. But when the overriding ethos of the school one attends is a Zionist one, don’t in a public forum at an important school event give the proverbial finger to everyone there. Surely there’s a more meaningful way to protest that doesn’t simply gain the protesters notoriety while acting as a completely divisive force in a community that is already under scrutiny and siege by many outside of it looking to pounce on any perceived or real misstep?

I’m also at pains to understand how this action manages to “question some of the clear injustices that are perpetrated by the state of Israel”. In fact, the boys’ thoughts on the issue are opaque if all they do to express them in the school environment is to take a knee.

Speak up in class, make a speech at assembly, write an essay and have it published, organise an evening of dialogue on the subject. All of these interventions would be a legitimate form of questioning. But taking time to formulate one’s thoughts and be measured in one’s take on a tricky topic is hard work. Intentionally creating havoc at a prominent school event, on the other hand, is easy.

It’s also unlikely that any of those other actions would draw the attention of GroundUp or motivate broadcast news crews to clamour at the school gates. And in our rampant look-at-me society where self-promotion is a religion and the aping of celebrity behaviour key to being noticed, it’s no surprise teenagers would use this tactic to so-called “question” Israel’s policies.

The American footballer who started the “take a knee” national anthem protest, Colin Kaepernick, is an adult and a highly regarded professional athlete. By virtue of his achievements and standing, some might say he had earned the right to push the boundaries aggressively. A couple of teenagers in middle school, not so much.

Being capable of the nuanced thinking required to tackle a contentious issue in a way that won’t cause chaos appears to be beyond the ambit of these teenagers. And that is why the school is well within its rights to discipline them. These aren’t adults out in the world; these are boys in a school environment governed by a regulatory framework.

Part of a successful high school education is to equip young people with the means to behave thoughtfully. Pulling a premeditated stunt to create shock and outrage rather than do anything of worth in a meaningful way is an indication that there is work to be done all round in inculcating a sense of empathy and appropriateness.

The Herzlia governing body has an inordinately difficult task now of dealing with an issue that has people from all sides shouting the odds and frothing at the mouth. Those for whom unbridled criticism comes quickly, and usually unaccompanied by substantive solutions to the problem, should be mindful that there are experienced people working on how best to move forward, and it would be generous to allow the school governing body the leeway it deserves to handle this matter as it sees fit.

And, in this situation, where all viewpoints have been considered and all feedback weighed, a more balanced and reasonable set of disciplinary measures than those imposed by Herzlia one would not necessarily find at another school.

As these boys grow up and venture into the world, they’ll discover that a lot of people they encounter who don’t come from the same backgrounds as them simply don’t like Jews (many of whom won’t actually know any on a personal level). They’ll realise that going to Herzlia gave them the freedom to develop fully, without being attacked simply for being Jewish. And that platform of strength and support will stand them in good stead in later life when they invariably and inevitably encounter anti-Semitism, often thinly disguised as anti-Zionism.

I don’t know these boys. But I have no doubt that, like most Herzlia students, they’re probably quite verbal and switched-on, and more than capable of forming an argument where their knees are straight and their feet on the ground. Expressing themselves powerfully from that position would be much more impressive, and would much more successfully establish their bona fides as brave, questioning thinkers. DM

Dominique Herman is an alumnus of Herzlia. Her father is a trustee of the Herzlia board of governors.


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