The moral drama of the Israeli occupation plays out at a South African school.
In 2003, Herzlia High School, the apex of the private Jewish school system in Cape Town, South Africa, awarded me “Best All-Rounder” in my grade 12 year, though it didn’t grade my final Jewish History research project. My paper was titled “Palestine: A Stolen Land?” and subtitled “The Establishment of Israel: Zionists, Palestinians, Democracy and the UN Partition Plan.”
Contrary to what people think, Herzlia’s official religion is not Judaism; it’s Zionism.
In November 2018, two grade 9 students kneeled in protest at Herzlia Middle School’s prize-giving when the Israeli national anthem was played. While the teenage students did not make a verbal statement, a voice recording by one of the two students, circulated at the time on WhatsApp and other social media, articulates the students’ principled intention to demonstrate their disagreement with the current Israeli regime’s actions and to challenge Herzlia’s “big problem with restriction of information … when they only teach you one side of the story … pro-Israel.”
The two protesting students wanted to show fellow students that “normal humans” like themselves and “not terrorists” are sympathetic to “pro-Palestinian ideas.” The recording also advanced a third rationale: “I felt really strongly connected to” surfacing the “huge divide in the Jewish community [between] pro-Palestine or pro-Israel,” which is often unspoken to avoid conflict. As a result, division and anger persist without “discourse.”
In response, the Director of Education of the United Herzlia Schools (the schools’ corporate entity) sent a swift letter to parents, which condemned the teenagers for “deliberate and flagrant disregard for the ethos of the school […and] blatant flouting of […] Herzlia’s Zionist values.” The letter asserted the teenagers would face “disciplinary and educational” consequences:
the students could not wear their colours for six months nor represent Herzlia for six months. They must write two 3,000 word essays, write an apology letter, attend four meetings with elected community members, and are not permitted to attend grade nine farewell. They also may not talk to the media.
The two teenagers have since been named, shamed, vilified and victimized—though one-hundred-odd alumni then signed a letter in support of the students’ (right to) protest. According to these alumni, Herzlia’s response is “not surprising” and is “deliberately one-sided” about Palestine-Israel. Indeed, the school’s “ethos” is openly and “proudly Zionist”; it educates-and-disciplines (or re-educates “undisciplined” teenagers) in orthodox Zionism.
The Director of Education then gave an interview to the Jerusalem Post where he assured Israelis that the two students are Zionists, and Herzlia is a “proudly Zionist” school. (Incidentally, the Jerusalem Post was edited by a South African Zionist émigré to Israel from 2011 to 2016).
But why shouldn’t the two protesting teenagers be Zionists (inasmuch as they are)? Isn’t the problem just contemporary Israeli government policy, or prime minister Netanyahu, and not Zionism itself?
In December 2017, a 16-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi was imprisoned for 8 months by Israel after slapping an Israeli soldier on her family’s property—hours after Israeli soldiers shot her 15-year-old cousin in the face. This was not Tamimi’s first fight for freedom: in 2015, a video went viral of her biting an Israeli soldier who was arresting her younger brother. Consequently, in 2016, she was not granted a visa by the United States government for a speaking trip—entirely unsurprising, given the US establishment’s “deliberate and flagrant” decades-long support for Zionist Israel. An editorial in the Israeli paper Haaretz (which has a liberal reputation), at the time of Tamini biting the soldier, noted:
The video clearly shows, once again, the truth about a great deal of the IDF’s operational activities: chasing children. […] It’s hard to blame [the soldier involved]. An army that fights children and chases them as they flee is an army that has lost its conscience. The only way to change the situation is to change the reality.
The Haaretz editorial did not say when the Israeli army lost its conscience—nor when it started “fighting” children. Also omitted is the fact that the Israeli army murders Palestinian children regularly: on average, more than two every week since 2000 (as Noam Chomsky put it; data from respected rights group B’Tselem among others). Also passed over in silence are all the children who live in Gaza, now widely labeled an “open-air prison.”
Yet the Haaretz editorial points to the ongoing Israeli Zionist policy of changing reality on the ground. Thus, Israeli cabinet minister Uri Ariel was more direct in calling teenage Ahed Tamimi a “terrorist” for not having learned the lesson taught, and thus being an undeterred, obstructive reality to be removed: “I think Israel acts too mercifully […] Lack of deterrence leads to the reality we see now […] we must change that.”
Indeed, changing reality on the ground—from occupations of Palestinian land and livelihood resources, through military expulsions and murders, to extensive expansion of Israeli Zionist settlements—has been consistent Israeli Zionist policy for decades. Such policy is remarkable only for its consistency across governments; and for the very limited comment this draws in corridors of power, and on pages of establishment newspapers.
Today, the Israeli prime minister and a number of party-leaders-cum-cabinet-ministers, explicitly foreswear any Palestinian state. In contrast, Israel’s unending conquest of ever more Palestinian land, and severance of Gaza from the West Bank—itself divided into apartheid-Bantustan-type cantons—have led many to conclude the only outcome possible is a single state of some kind.
Zionism is a chauvinist, racist, ethnically-nationalist Euro-modern settler-colonialism, which manipulated the Holocaust to establish an ethno-nationalist colonial-settler state in Palestine, called Israel as an alleged haven for Jews. All this on land stolen and occupied after the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe,” which marked the expulsion of half of the Palestinian population. Today, Israel remains a state in which citizenship is legally constituted in terms of ethnicity (“Jewish” or “Arab”; not “Israeli”). “Jew” and “Jewish” are legislated and enforced as a superior and exclusionary ethnic-racial identity. Only “pure” Jews are recognized and treated as full citizens. Palestinians, exiled Palestinian refugees, and children of Israeli-Palestinian marriages are excluded, physically, from citizenship and/or return; Arab-identified nationals are systematically made secondary citizenship through discrimination in education funding, land ownership, etc.
This colonial-settler, ethno-nationalist racism extends to African migrant workers and refugees, who suffer official and popular anti-Black-African racism, including their being labelled “infiltrators”, used to justify plans for deportation en masse. Actually, darker-skinned Mizrahi Jews in general, and Ethiopian Jews in particular face racist discrimination. For instance, Ethiopian Jews continue to protest the “special approval” they need to “return” (emigrate-as-Jews) to Israel (where many also have family). In turn, the Israeli government has been forced to admit to widespread sterilization of Jews from Ethiopia; despite the country’s loudly proclaimed claim as the “only democracy in the Middle East.”
What Israel, and much of the Herzlia community, and many in the Cape and South African white Zionist communities would rather avoid (or only conveniently manipulate) is that to be Jewish is not inherently or necessarily to be white. There are long histories of darker-skinned Jews in the Middle East, as well as African and/or Black Jews in today’s North America and the Caribbean. The East-European Ashkenazi Jews only became white when they fled to racist South Africa, or the United States. The increasing Zionist insistence on the racial and ideological purity of Israeli Jewishness is a mark of European colonial white supremacy and anti-Black racism.
Certainly, all this is highlighted in the current period, in which “democratic” Israel has been changing reality by reinforcing Zionism internally and internationally—including against, and/or at risk to, Jews. Rebecca Vilkomerson, banned from Israel alongside fellow Jewish Voices for Peace colleagues from the US, points out what is clear:
One thing that has definitely happened in the Trump era is that […] you can love Israel and still hate Jews and often I think a deal with the devil is being made by a lot of Jewish organisations, that as long as a person supports Israel, they give them a pass on anti-Semitism.
Thus, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the first to congratulate the open fascist Jair Bolsonaro after he was elected president of Brazil, saying he was “confident of […] great friendship […] We await your visit to Israel.” And the prime minister doesn’t hide his affinity for Donald Trump, and has repeatedly called a “true friend of Israel,” sometimes adding that Israel has no “greater friend.” Netanyahu and Israel have embraced another “true friend of Israel” in the person of neo-fascist Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. In 2017, Trump himself responded to an orthodox Jewish journalist’s question about rising anti-Semitism in the US with Netanyahu’s endorsement (of Trump) as the only evidence needed. Throughout, Trump, Orban, Netanyahu, and Netanyahu’s son (aged 26), are all currently engaged in scapegoating Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire-philanthropist George Soros as the evil “puppet-master” behind opposition to their actions, using the explicitly anti-Semitic tropes of the wealthy Jewish “globalist” and sinister “happy Jewish merchant.” One consequence of these leaders’ common anti-Semitism while asserting Zionist Israel, and especially Trump’s license and encouragement to the anti-Semitic right, was, of course, the murder of 11 Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October.
What is not yet evident to—or else still wilfully denied by—those in the Cape Town and South African Jewish communities who enforced and/or supported Herzlia’s Zionist “disciplinary and educational” consequences, as well as those in Israel and internationally who cheered along, is that Zionist ethno-nationalist, racist identification of Jews is entirely compatible with anti-Semitism up to and including the murder of even white Jews living today in the United States, Israel’s “greatest friend.”
Today, Netanyahu and Israel are reinforcing, enabling and sometimes weaponizing the historical co-existence of Zionism with anti-Semitism. Before Netanyahu’s congratulations to Bolsonaro, Israel was selling weapons en masse to Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, an authoritarian far-right mass-murderer. The most recent sale was concluded on Duterte’s trip to Israel in 2017, during which he also visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. This is the same Rodrigo Duterte who the previous year likened himself to Hitler and expressed admiration for the Nazi leader.
In stark contrast, and against Zionism, in Ahed Tamimi’s video message to the First World Forum on Critical Thinking in Argentina last November, the teenage freedom fighter insisted:
along with inheriting occupation and suffering […] “We inherit the revolution. […] Palestinians see themselves as fighters for liberty, not victims. So, I hope that you too can see us as fighters for liberty.”
Tamimi encouraged each of us to make a choice: “Support us in the struggle to obtain […] liberty, justice, and democracy. That’s the best way to support us.”
As each of us makes our own choice, what more can “we”—including everyone connected to the South African Jewish community—learn here?
Rafeef Ziadah, Palestinian poet-activist, points the way. Ziadah narrates that “When the bombs were dropping on Gaza,” she was asked a question of the kind “we Palestinians always get”: “Don’t you think it would all be fine if you just stopped teaching your [Palestinian] children to hate?”
What about Herzlia’s Jewish children? We must learn from Ziadah’s poetic (four-and-a-half minute) response: “We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life.”
Against Zionism, we must choose to learn and teach life.