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Cape Town - A storm has erupted after two students at United Herzlia Middle School in Cape Town went down on one knee in protest at the treatment of Palestinians during the playing of the Israeli national anthem at their school last week.

While many have praised their protest as a courageous act for human rights, the school is suggesting disciplinary action be taken against the students.

The students, who attend Herzlia school and themselves are Jewish, believed that the gesture - first introduced in 2016 by American football player, Colin Kaepernick, to draw attention to police brutality and racial inequality in the United States - was an appropriate form of protest against Israel’s half-century occupation of Palestine and the Israeli government’s repressive policies against the Palestinian people, the Afro-Palestine Newswire Service reported on Friday.

“If we stand for the national anthem of Israel, we are not only standing for the words in it but we are also standing for what Israel is as a country right now. We were being forced to do that and we didn’t want to,” said one of the boys, who wished to remain anonymous.

The boys also want to encourage a diversity of views on the issue of Israel’s occupation of Palestine - something which their school does not allow, the Afro-Palestine Newswire Service said. 

“Herzlia as a school has a big problem with restriction of information. When the teachers teach you [about Palestine-Israel] they only teach you one side of the story. While teachers say its fine for you to talk about pro-Palestine ideas, inside the classroom they will only teach you pro-Israel ideas.” 

This, the teen says, results in students developing a narrow-minded view about Palestinians and the pro-Palestine solidarity movement. The learners also hope that their protest will spark a much-needed conversation within the South African Jewish community about the occupation.   

Education director of the United Herzlia Schools group, Geoff Cohen, said the boys’ protest was “embarrassing”, “inappropriate”, and had “brought the school into disrepute”.

Cohen and the boys’ principal Shane Brorson, in consultation with the management committee of the school’s governing body and the chairperson of the board of trustees, decided on a set of consequences designed to be “disciplinary and educational”.

Cohen did not clarify what specific actions would be taken against the boys. The Western Cape Department of Education was unaware of the incident or of the disciplinary measures against the boys.

While the school has condemned the learners’ actions, others have heralded them as heroes.

Allan Kolski Horwitz, a former Herzlia student and now the spokesperson for South African Jews for a Free Palestine, said the protest was “a brave act given the intolerant environment in which it took place”. 

Horwitz believes that the students’ use of a protest that is generally associated with black struggle is encouraging. 

“It shows that they are aware that the Palestinian struggle is part of a larger anti-colonial struggle,” he said in an interview with the Afro-Palestine Newswire Service.

Former government minister, Ronnie Kasrils, also praised the boys. 

“They put to shame the Zionist values that Herzlia's authorities are so obviously intent on enforcing. They need to be applauded for the stand they have taken in bravely bending the knee,” said the anti-apartheid stalwart who is of Jewish origin.

The Herzlia incident sparked global interest after it was reported in Israeli media, and has firmly put the spotlight on how Jewish institutions deal with questions about the occupation from young Jews.

 “A new generation of Jews around the word are transforming our community. They’re demanding freedom and dignity for Palestinians. Jewish establishments now have a simple choice, follow their lead or continue ignoring the youth?”, IfNotKnow, an anti-occupation group made up mainly of Jewish millenials tweeted. 

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies refused to comment on the issue.

While some members of the Jewish community have called for the boys to be expelled, others have been more supportive. 

“I believe we should all be incredibly proud of the boys and the courage it must have taken to take a stand in an environment that does not provide for free expression. They are true leaders and represent the hope of all free-thinking Jews around the world,” a community member said.

This is not the first time that Herzlia has been accused of censoring discussions about the occupation.

In 2016, Daniel Linde - a lawyer with the Equal Education Law Centre and a Herzlia alumnus - briefly mentioned the occupation when addressing the high school’s learners.

Principal, Mark Falconer, objected to Linde’s reference to Palestinian human rights and assured parents that the school would immediately enforce a more rigorous process of vetting future speakers at the school.

In 2014, Joshua Broomberg, the deputy head boy of King David High Victory Park, a Johannesburg-based Jewish day school, faced harsh criticism over his show of support for the Palestinian people when he wore a keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) while competing at the World Schools Debating Championships. 

An online petition called for Broomberg’s removal as deputy head boy and as a member of the school’s student representative council.

African News Agency (ANA); Editing by Naomi Mackay