Just as the controversy over King David Victory Park High School (KDVP) student Joshua Broomberg started to die down, the Times has reported that another student at the school was suspended from his leadership role for criticizing Israel’s behavior on a Facebook group.
The pupil – who has remained anonymous – has filed a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission. The complaint alleges that the pupil’s right to freedom of expression had been violated, and he was publicly humiliated in a school newsletter.
“If you are critical of Israel once, you will be written off by the leadership at King David for the rest of your school career,” the student told the Times.
The school’s principal, Marc Falconer, told the Times it was not the pupil’s views on Israel that were at issue but rather that Facebook with its “one liners and vitriolic comments” was not an appropriate forum for debate. The page on which the comments were made had led to cyber bullying.
In a school newsletter Falconer said “debate was important and the school had learned from the Facebook page that there was a need to discuss the Jewish people’s complex relationship with Israel in a different forum”.
Earlier this month, Broomberg, who heads South Africa’s national debating team, sparked controversy in the Jewish community and on social media when he was photographed wearing a Palestinian scarf (keffiyeh) and a badge bearing the Palestinian flag at an international debating event. The caption on the photograph read: “Team South Africa wearing Palestinian badges and keffiyehs to show our opposition to the human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine.”
A petition, which claimed Broomberg had “brought the school of which he holds office into disrepute” and called on the South African national debate team captain to have his honours revoked, soon circulated.
A counter-petition supporting Broomberg, titled “Defending Safe Spaces and Freedom of Expression”, soon followed. The petition, which has garnered over 3 000 signatures, called for the defence of freedom of expression and an end to the “exaggerated attacks” on Broomberg. The petition’s initial signatories were former head and deputy head boys and girls of KDVP.
“We believe that silencing people, especially young people, is not in the spirit of our community,” they said.
Broomberg, who describes himself as a proud South African Jew and a Zionist, meanwhile published a post on his Facebook page, saying his wearing of the keffiyeh was “about humanity”.
“We stand with the thousands of civilians who have lost their lives in the conflict. We stand with a people who do not yet have a state to protect themselves. We stand with the innocents. We stand for two states. We do not stand against Israel,” he said. .
Broomberg later apologised to the school for the uproar.
Writing in the Daily Maverick, Saul Musker, one of the debate team members photographed with Broomberg, said the reaction to the image had “exposed the deep fault lines in the local Jewish community”. Musker said that while everyone has the right to an opinion, children need to be protected from “the vitriol of sad and bellicose adults”.
The Gauteng department of education has defended Broomberg, saying calls for his honours to be revoked are unconstitutional. KDVP has said that the school respects his right to freedom of expression and that he will not be suspended.
Broomberg is currently in Thailand for the World Schools Debating Championship, and is expected to return on Monday.