A pupil at King David Linksfield was called “foolish” and “dangerous” for his views on Israel by his principal in the school newsletter, late last year.
The pupil had been active on the Facebook group, KD Confessions, which allows for students to express their opinions anonymously. He posted a comment that criticised Israeli policy which he says “was taken out of context”. The student, who had been elected to the Student Representative Council (SRC), was not allowed to take up his position as a result of the furore.
He and his family have told Wits Vuvuzela they have taken their complaint to the South African Human Rights Commission and are asking for an apology and for the school to abide by the Constitution.
This comes during a time when freedom of expression in the South African Jewish community has come under scrutiny, after a petition was started to remove another King David school pupil, Joshua Broomberg, as deputy head of the school’s branch in Victory Park. Broomberg had appeared on Facebook wearing a Palestinian badge and keffiyeh (scarf) in protest of “human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine”.
The Linksfield student’s story began last year, when he was told by the school principal, Marc Falconer, he would not be allowed to take an official role as a student leader after being elected onto the SRC “because of my political views,” he said.
“I was challenged over what I said online, I said I don’t like the term ‘I hate Israel’ and the school took that as what I believe,” the student said.
“I love Israel, I consider myself a firm lover and supporter of Israel.”
The student quickly became a victim of “vicious bullying” by a teacher at the school, who the student’s father said threatened and intimidated him. His parents were informed by Falconer that he could no longer protect the student at school, according to the student’s father.
Student “named and shamed” by principal at school assembly
Falconer told Wits Vuvuzela that the issue with the student’s comments were that they were on a public forum like Facebook. He said the post by the student was “contentious.”
“My concern was not a political one, it was an educational one. Any criticism and debate needs to be educationally sound, considered and constructive,” he said.
In a newsletter to the school community, he explained that a Grade 12 pupil’s leadership role would be deferred as he had engaged “in a debate which was neither appropriate in terms of the forum nor bring anything complimentary” for the school.
He said the student was “acting in a dangerous manner.”
But the student said that his fellow King David Linksfield students knew his views when they voted for him as a student representative.
Later, during an announcement at at a school assembly, the student was again singled out for his views by Falconer, this time by name.
“But the students knew my views, they voted me in as a representative,” the student said. They then made the same announcement in assembly, but this time named him, which Falconer said in retrospect, may not have been what he (the student) had expected and was prepared to apologise for this.
The student’s father told Wits Vuvuzela that Falconer had “named and shamed” his child.
Falconer defended the school’s climate and said it allowed for free debate. However, “we teach a centrality of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, but this is apolitical.”
Falconer said he was open to criticism of Israel and but that the criticism should be constructive and educational.
Not an isolated event
The student told Wits Vuvuzela that last year his marks started to drop due to the bullying, but it has affected him less this year. “It’s affected me in that my community school is violating the right to freedom of speech- myself and others.”
The father said he was standing by his son and said this instance of bullying over political views was not isolated. Not being able to express their views at school and instead turning to a Facebook group to do so is resulting in “children being forced out of the King David School due to their views.”
“There have been numerous incidents of victimisation and censorship in the King David school system,’ he said.
“The school is not a place to use our children as political pawns,” he said.
“It is about education and learning.”