The best laid plans of tikkun olam can sometimes go awry

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By Craig Nudelman

As a teacher at Herzlia, I’m continually growing as I learn from the students in my classroom, as I hope they are from me. But this week, a more important learning experience was gained from outside the confines of the classroom.

Herzlia’s Grade 11s recently undertook a very ambitious and remarkable project.
The project was to assist an underprivileged school which, due to the legacy of apartheid, suffers from a lack of facilities. It isn’t a safe environment; there are not enough teachers for the students (they do not have a maths teacher for one of their classes, nor a functioning library.) Its buildings are prefab, which are often frequented by squatters who live around the area. However, the Herzlia students’ best intentions went awry. A situation occurred which was, for many of the students, their first encounter with the fine line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

The initiative by Herzlia’s students was to fundraise for paint, and books with which to stock the library, and make a ‘chill’ area for the students which would be safe and aesthetically pleasing. Another part of the project was for the students to attend Herzlia and participate in various events, including drama; drumming; art; sport; computer technology; and natural science activities.
The students took the project on and worked extremely hard to ensure that everything went smoothly. Their efforts were even broadcasted on Cape Talk. However, the day we visited the school was marred by a political statement.

The deputy-principal, unbeknownst to us or the school head, was against the project from the start and put up posters on his office window, which were deeply hurtful and unnecessary. They were anti-Zionist and portrayed Jews and Israel in a bad light. For a Zionist school, these posters put up on the day our students had come to assist the twin-school were extremely offensive and upsetting to many of the Herzlia students and staff. The next day, after myriad phone-calls to the leadership, it was decided that Herzlia students would not be going back to the school to finish their work. For the project to continue, Herzlia laid down ​three ​conditions;​ that Herzlia receive a letter of apology from Vista’s school principal, that Herzlia would receive a letter of undertaking that the pupils and staff of Vista were invested in and committed to the project, and that the posters would be taken down immediately. ​

Of course I found the posters to be deeply hurtful and offensive. However, the only person who displayed these was the deputy-principal. I think that the students of the twin school are the ones that were the most negatively affected and this by the actions of one individual. I also believe that this is a valuable lesson for our Herzlia students. When you are part of the Herzlia school system, you are in such a safe and enclosed space that you rarely encounter any form of antisemitism. You may see slurs on social media or in the newspaper but it is very rare to be openly faced with criticism of your belief system and ideology when you are at school. I think that this experience challenged the students. It made them think about their identity and how deeply Israel is embedded into their core belief system.

The following day Geoff Cohen, Director of the United Herzlia Schools, addressed the students. Their responses were amazing. There were some who thought that this was an affront on not only their Zionistic identity but also their Jewish identity. They came to school in Israeli regalia, sporting Israeli flags and t-shirts which demonstrated their love for Israel. Others wanted to go back to the twin school, to carry on working on their project which they had driven for so long.
So what I saw were two positives. The first was that Herzlia students were given the opportunity to witness first-hand that there are people who have different and very negative opinions about Israel. They will most likely be confronted with these negative views again, whether they attend a different school or go to university; or see a car on the road with a bumper-sticker that says ‘Free Palestine’; they will be able to deal with it better. The second is that they now have the opportunity to debate with each other, and maybe with ‘the other’, in an intelligent and calm manner.

We have to ensure that our children are prepared for the world out there. I hope that my daughter knows about both sides of the conflict and can debate her point of view without becoming too emotional (which is very difficult to do). We must ensure we continue to have real and logical conversations about the conflict, our Jewish, and our Zionist identity with our children. However, let’s not be put off by this one disappointing experience but keep on fighting for Tikkun Olam.

With this spirit, we can change our society for the better and bring a divine presence into the world.

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