Skip to main content

South Africa: Former students sound alarm over school's links to Israeli army

Israeli soldiers are routinely invited to speak to students at Herzlia High School, of whom more than 20 percent head to Israel after they wrap up their studies
Pro-Palestine activists march in Johannesburg on 29 November 2023 (AFP)
By Ilham Rawoot in Cape Town, South Africa

Former students at a high school in the South African city of Cape Town have raised concerns that the seat of learning is serving as a recruitment tool for the Israeli army.

Three former students at the Herzlia High School told Middle East Eye that faculty, including the school's principal, along with guest speakers, would often encourage students to enlist in the Israeli army.

"The ethos of the school and the Jewish community is that that's just what you do," a former Herzlia student who requested his name be withheld, told MEE.

"No one ever rocks up at school in uniform with a gun - it's not as on-the-nose as that. But there are often soldiers who come and talk about what it's like being in the Israeli army. 

"Many of our teachers were in the IDF [Israeli army]. You never hear the words 'you should go and serve in the IDF' but it's definitely a message that is sent by the school and received by the students."

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


As the death toll continues to spiral in Gaza, South African authorities have faced renewed pressure from pro-Palestine activists to prosecute individuals who have travelled to Israel to fight in the country's war in the territory.

Thousands of foreign nationals are known to have gone to Israel after the 7 October attacks, but it remains unclear how many may have travelled directly from South Africa.

A handful of South Africans have taken to social media and identified themselves as being present in Gaza, including Lee Taljaard, who most recently posted video of himself laughing and joking as a massive explosion rocked the embattled enclave.

Meanwhile, MEE has also uncovered that a former Herzlia student, who currently works in the Israeli army spokesperson's unit, has posted several photos of herself in military fatigues. It is unclear whether she is part of the ground offensive in Gaza.

MEE reached out to Taljaard and the former Herzlia student for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

No one has been charged

While military service is compulsory in Israel, South African law expressly forbids its citizens from fighting for foreign militaries, unless they first apply to a government body and their request is approved by the minister of defence and military veterans.

A spokesperson for the South African government told MEE in December that no national had yet made such an application.

According to an interview with an Israeli news channel last year, the Herzlia school's director of Jewish identity and culture, Geoff Cohen, and the school's executive director, Andries van Renssen, said that more than 20 percent of their ex-pupils go to Israel after they finish their studies, of whom an unspecified number serve in the Israeli army. 

War on Gaza: Will South Africa prosecute its citizens fighting for Israel?
Read More »

During Israel's 2008 offensive on the embattled territory, known as Operation Cast Lead, at least 73 South Africans are known to have fought for Israel.

None of the individuals were charged by the South African government.

The former student who MEE spoke to recalled a moment when a teacher told him and a group of other students that it was crucial Israel continued to fight against "the Arabs" and maintained a heavy military presence in the occupied territories, even if the Palestinians gave up their legal right to resist Israel.

"This man is educating children," the former student said.

Several former Herzlia students, including a number who have graduated in the last three years, said the school's education had aligned further with Israel's right-wing groups, as the South African government took a more pro-Palestine position.

Students sing the Israeli anthem during assembly every two weeks, along with the South African anthem, celebrate Israel’s national day and Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for slain Israeli soldiers. There is also a large mural in the school of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement in the "student pause" section of the school. 

As a private school, Herzlia has greater flexibility in the curriculum it offers than public schools, which must follow the national curriculum.

'Glorifying and promoting genocide'

Jack Markovitz, another former student, said while he didn't observe staff or faculty encouraging students to serve in the army, there was never any indication that it was illegal to enlist or serve.

"Instead there is the idea in the community that 'if it's frowned upon, we got you'. It is a more wholesale indoctrination. You are sold living in Israel – how great the universities are, how nice the beaches are, and there is a strong encouragement to serve. To give you a kind of purpose after high school," Markovitz said.

Anthony Hodgson, a Cape Town-based coordinator for South African Jews for a Free Palestine and former Herzlia student, said one of the main problems was that the school had wholeheartedly adopted a Zionist agenda.

'Kids have been taught to connect their own personal safety to the state of Israel at a very deep level and from a very young age'

Anthony Hodgson, former Herzlia student

"When you look specifically at the Zionist schools, the problem runs very deep," Hodgson said. 

"Kids have been taught to connect their own personal safety to the state of Israel at a very deep level and from a very young age, so it might be that kids who have attended those schools need more years to reach a kind of political awakening on the topic of Palestine."

Hodgson added that critical voices, including conscientious objectors, were denied access to speak to students by the school. 

Na'eem Jeenah, a senior researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, said that Herzlia needed to be held accountable for its actions.

"By inviting Israeli soldiers to interact with learners and glorify what our government has already proclaimed as war crimes and, now genocide, Herzlia is, itself, glorifying and promoting genocide and numerous violations of international law," he said. 

Jeenah added that the implicit message of these visits and the indoctrination from a young age means that Herzlia is allowing and promoting violations of the law. 

"Our society should not be tolerating a situation where young children are taught to hate others in such profound ways that they would be encouraged to take up weapons and kill those others. That amounts to abuse of children, and incitement to violence."

MEE reached out to Herzlia High School for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

MEE also contacted the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which has previously defended the school over its curriculum, but did not receive a response.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.