‘It’s not enough to be right, others must be wrong’

Herzlia’s Hatikvah hiccough is all over the news now, and not just in Cape Town. The story of two grade 9 pupils “taking the knee” during the singing of the anthem has been picked up by mainstream publications in Israel, Britain and America, and doubtless elsewhere too. At the same time, on social media, there’s been a torrent of indignant commentary, from both reactionaries, as you’d expect, and from progressives, less pardonably. This in turn has fed into a widespread view that the episode has been bad all round: humiliating for the boys, damaging for the school and destructive for the community at large. I can’t help thinking though that all of these interpretations are wrong.

The first misreading, or misrepresentation, concerns the youngsters themselves, who’ve been cast as either brave dissidents facing draconian repercussions or as cynical, self-hating Jews deserving summary expulsion. The better view, surely, is that they’re civic minded but slightly pretentious neophytes who’re getting just what they expected, and wanted.

Theirs was a carefully considered symbolic action, not some random, spontaneous, adolescent prank. And it was done in a way that guaranteed a viscerally hostile response from the majority of those present. Shocking the majority out of their (supposed) comfort zone was, indeed, the very point of the exercise – and it was just too bad if they spoiled a big night for some of their classmates. That was “collateral damage”, they’d surely argue, and as nothing compared with the suffering of hundreds of thousands of school-goers in Gaza and the West Bank. I’ve heard the one youngster explain what they hoped to achieve, very eloquently, but I’ve not heard him say why they couldn’t have chosen a regular morning assembly, at least for starters. Timing matters, always. And so does finesse, and empathy.

Secondly, as for the school itself, it didn’t actually do anything that would warrant condemnation, for either callousness, on the one hand or cowardice on the other. There was an online clamour for expulsion, from the right, and some creative threats from both sides, but neither the principal nor the governing body took the bait. To the contrary, the steps that were taken appear to have been fairly measured, and likewise the public statements that were issued. I think that the same authority figures made a real hash of the Limmud disinvitations, a few months ago, but on this occasion they got it pretty much right.

Had they indulged the (majority) conservatives that would have been a sad day for an avowedly liberal institution, and had they done nothing they could fairly be accused of craven political correctness. The latter would also have given a poor message to the student body (that anything goes) and would, ironically, have been a grave disappointment to the wannabe rebels themselves. Upsetting the Establishment was, after all, the exact point of the exercise.

The third fatuous conclusion was that the whole affair reflected discredit, and even shame, on the Jewish community as a whole. That’s a common refrain when schisms get airtime in the secular media, but it’s really a symptom of muddled, even paranoid thinking.

Intellectual contestation is not just typical of Jews, it’s central to our way of being. The fact that there are differing factions, with diametrically opposed opinions is a cause for pride, not squirming. Like what happened with the Kol Isha episode a year ago, there has been much anxious talk of “airing our dirty laundry in public”, but that’s both prissy and stupid. Being diverse, and tolerant, are qualities we should celebrate, not shy away from.

The only real losers here, unless I’m missing something, are those who, on both sides, were baying for blood, publicly, within seconds of getting to hear what had happened. The obvious lessons for them, and for all of us, include these three. First, wait an hour or five before reacting, intemperately, to some or other affront. Second, assume complexity when making your eventual assessment, and be slow to impute evil motives to the other side. And third, be mindful of the urge to righteous indignation. Recognize how prone we (all) are to falling into this mode of relating, and how terribly destructive it can be.

“Good and bad I defined these terms, quite clear, no doubt, somehow; Ah but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now” (Bob Dylan)

About the Author
Long time member of the world's most despised minority: white, male, straight, affluent, Jewish, South African lawyer (lawyer-turned-businessman actually). Fairly regular op ed contributor to various South African publications, notably Business Day.
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