There is something politically, socially and morally deeply problematic about our schools, both private and public. Our schools are not only increasingly becoming unsafe spaces for pupils (and teachers) but are also becoming instruments of suppression. Almost on a daily on social media videos surface of teachers embroiled in sex scandals with pupils, pupils bullying and stabbing each other, pupils beating up teachers and teachers beating up pupils. And these are only the incidents that we know of via social media, there are a litany of others that occur but are not caught on camera or reported. There are a myriad of issues pertaining our schools that need to be discussed and debated, however, in this article I will attempt to provide an explication on an incident that had occurred at Herzlia Middle School.
Earlier this month, two grade 9 pupils at Herzlia Middle School in Cape Town engaged in a silent protest during a prizegiving ceremony. When the school, being a Jewish school, started to sing the Hatikvah the two pupils “took a knee” to signal their opposition to the singing of the Israeli national anthem.
Subsequent to the pupil’s protest, the Director of Education Geoff Cohen, according to GrounUp, sent an email to all parents. In the email Mr Cohen said that the conduct of the two pupils was “inappropriate” and “demonstrated deliberate and flagrant disregard for the ethos of the school”. He further went on to say that the school does not take any issue with the airing or expressing of dissenting views or beliefs which may not reflect the school’s ideological belief, however, the school felt that what was problematic is, “the time, place and manner in which such views were displayed…”. He further went on to say that the conduct of the two pupils amounted to a “blatant flouting of the School Rules, Herzlia’s Zionist values and the values of Herzlia’s Menschlichkeit [humanity] pillar”. Following from this, the school said that it will take “both disciplinary and educational” measures against the two pupils for their violation of school rules and values.
One of the pupils whom the school is going to take disciplinary and educational action against said in an podcast broadcasted by Capetalk Radio 702 that the principle reason why they staged the silent protest was because the singing of the national anthem was contrary to their principled beliefs because they “don’t support what currently Israel is doing”, therefore they couldn’t stand there. Secondly, a practical reason why they staged the protest is because the school contrary to its praise of freedom of speech allegedly only teaches pro-Israel ideas in the classrooms. Lastly, their objective with the protest was to bridge the divide that exists within the Jewish community caused by pro-Israel verses pro-Palestine politics. They argued that the anger within the Jewish community stifles any possibility of productive discourse and they hoped that the protest will get people on the extreme left and extreme right to not only start talking to each other but hopefully also attempt to understand why the other holds the view they do.
Before I attempt to dispel some of the myths propagated by the school and demonstrate its hypocrisy, first a few points of clarification. There exists this ubiquitous misconception in the mind of some South Africans that are Jewish and those that are not that all Jews by default are Zionist. This is false, not all Jews are Zionists. Zionism is a political ideology that a number of Jews do not subscribe to. On an equiprimordial point, this issue is not solely about the Jewish community, it also involves broader society and a long overdue national conversation.
The school regarded the actions of the two pupils as a blatant flouting of the School Rules and Herzlia’s Zionist values. This is false for the following reasons. Firstly, staging a silent protest is not a violation of the school rules, needless to say that the school did not cite specifically which rule(s) the two pupils flouted. The pupils were exercising the rights endowed upon them by the constitution. If anything, it is the school that flagrantly violated the two pupil’s constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech, and protest.
Thus, the pupils did not violate any school rule, it is the school that violated the law. The school’s attempt at the suppression of free speech and protest is reprehensible. Secondly, as I have clarified, not all Jews are Zionists. The Hatikvah is the national anthem of Israel. And the Jews that sing it are mostly those that are Pro-Israel. What makes the singing of the Hatikvah problematic is that it is exclusionary to those Jews that subscribe to Pro-Palestinian ideologies. Therefore the singing of the Hatikvah only promotes the values of the Pro-Israel Jews to the exclusion of those that are Pro-Palestinian.
The hypocrisy of the school is revealed in their suppression of the pupils and threat to take disciplinary and educational action against them. On the one hand the school says that it welcomes views and beliefs that dissent from the school’s Zionist stance but on the other hand it suppresses and threatens to discipline pupils who express their view or beliefs. In their website the school claims that, “it allows the pupils to be more confident for active participation, to question what they don’t understand and above all, freedom of thought”. The school’s reaction to the silent protest demonstrated that the school does not care for the creation of an environment conducive for ideological or political debates, but rather instead discourages freedom of thought and expression. To make matters worse, the school has unashamedly conferred upon itself the prerogative of deciding when and where it is “appropriate” for pupils to express their views and beliefs.
This incident at Herzlia Middle School is multi-layered, instructive and reflective of some of our South African Schools. It is time we question how some of our schools use their ginormous power to coerce pupils into conformity and solicit their silence through malicious actions and threats. It is time we see that some of these schools harbour repressive codes and exhibit intimidatory conduct abhorrent in our democratic society that values human dignity, equality and freedom. It is time that we stand up for our pupils and/or rally behind those that courageously confront the injustices and exclusionary practices in our schools like the two pupils did.
Shawn Mavundla is a writer, commentator and debater. He has also written articles on law, politics and philosophy for local print media and teaches debating and public speaking to High School students.