Luke Lange is 12 years old and supports Israel. He’s not Jewish, but believes the Jewish state is “a great country”, and was concerned about the hatred directed at it during the recent conflict. He decided to express his support by hanging an Israeli flag on his bedroom wall. But when he appeared for online school with the flag behind him, he was told it was unacceptable by at least two teachers – one of whom kicked him out of class for not taking the flag down.
Lange is in Grade 7 at Pinnacle College in Linden, Johannesburg. In an online recording of one class, we see him sitting with the flag behind him. The teacher asks him to take it down. “I see nothing wrong with it,” says Lange. The teacher tells him, “It’s not going to be acceptable to other people from other cultures and races. So, it’s fine for you, and that’s fine. But it’s not so okay for other people. I need to ask you please not to display it like that.”
In another class, the teacher sees it, and tells him, “You are showing that you aren’t sympathetic to others’ feelings and thoughts. So if you can, please, in my lesson, take the flag down, I would really appreciate that. I would feel like you are respecting me and my thoughts and feelings. I understand you have freedom of speech, thought, and feelings, but we have to do that in a respectful way.”
When he doesn’t turn off his screen, she kicks him out of the class with the click of a button. “That solved that issue. If he cannot respect us or respect anyone else’s thoughts and feelings, he will not be a part of this meeting,” she says while Lange is offline.
Another pupil, who had the Danish flag in the background, said to the teacher, “No one’s being offended by a Danish flag. Why do they have to be offended by the Israeli flag? It’s his bedroom – he’s allowed to have what he wants on the wall.”
“The thing is, you can’t expect people to react to all kinds of nationalities and all kinds of people,” responds the teacher. “I’m all for diversity. I’m all for acceptance. But you cannot tell anyone that what they are feeling is wrong.”
“But then it’s both ways,” says the pupil. However, the teacher doesn’t agree. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, the pupil says she stood up for Lange because, “I was really angry. I felt it was wrong that Luke was being isolated like that. Everyone should be treated equally and with respect.”
Lange told the SA Jewish Report, “I didn’t expect anyone to care [about the flag]. It’s a normal flag. I never expected that from a teacher, especially when she removed me or said I wasn’t ‘sensitive enough’ to what others wanted. I felt like I was being oppressed and said so in the Zoom chat. That’s when I was removed from the class.”
At the same time, he felt empowered by sticking to his convictions, and knew that he had the right to freedom of expression. In fact, his school’s code of conduct says this explicitly. It also says, “Any distinction, exclusion, limitation, or preference made by a person in an authoritative position who uses unfair grounds to distinguish, exclude, limit, or prefer certain persons for any role or activity or benefit is prohibited.”
Lange is on school holidays, and is unsure how he will be treated on his return to school. “I stood up for myself so that other kids don’t feel scared to express themselves,” he says. To the South African Jewish community, he says, “Stand up for your rights – your right to support Israel and be proud, your free speech, and freedom of religion.”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report as a parent of one of the children in the class, and as project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, Terence Corrigan says, “I have nothing but the highest regard for the school and its staff. But as both a parent and a professional political analyst, I find the manner in which this was handled concerning.
“There’s a principle here,” he says. “It sends a message that offence is enough to shut someone down. Is this really what we want to communicate to our children in a world where they are never going to be able to avoid wildly divergent views?
“Ultimately, it’s about consistency,” he says. “You can’t accept some forms of politics but not others – for example, Black Lives Matter but not Israel. Either it must all be restricted, or you allow a wide, even-handed berth.”
Advocate Mark Oppenheimer, who has an interest in constitutional law, notes that, “The underlying premise of the teacher’s position is that people’s feelings cannot be questioned and that the best way to respect people’s feelings is through censorship, warding off anything that could make anyone uncomfortable. She claims to respect free speech while at the same time demanding that the student remove his camera and block the background, which would, of course, not be respecting his right to free speech. It might be sufficient to protect his right to private property – in the sense that he’s free to have the flag up in his room – but his expression requirement is that he can express that image to others, and she’s intruding on that right.
“The situation in which the other child raises the Danish flag is an excellent example of reductio ad absurdum,” Oppenheimer says. “In other words, she takes the teacher’s position and reduces it to the absurd. Her actions say, ‘I have put up a flag of another nation, which also has a religious symbol on it [a cross], and if you think that I should be free to have this image up but that he shouldn’t be free to have the Star of David in his background, then there’s a problem.’”
Oppenheimer says there are double standards at play, and “if you indulge feelings as a reason for censoring, then it’s very hard to put the genie back in the bottle”.
“I’m all for diversity. I’m all for acceptance. But you cannot tell anyone that what they are feeling is wrong.”
Translation: “I’m all for diversity. I’m all for acceptance. Except when it comes to Jews.”
While this is a disturbing story on the whole, one must take heart at the fact that Luke Lange (not related to me) is not even Jewish, yet stood up for Israel like this, as did the Danish Flag kid. There might yet be some hope for the next generation.