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Left-wing Tel Aviv headmaster resigns in protest

The Herzliya Gymnasium's board overruled Ze'ev Degani's approval of an on-campus protest against enlistment in the IDF.

The Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel Aviv. Photo by Avishai Teiche via Wikimedia Commons.
The Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel Aviv. Photo by Avishai Teiche via Wikimedia Commons.

The board of directors of Tel Aviv’s historic Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium high school on Sunday moved to cancel an on-campus student demonstration against enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces, prompting headmaster Ze’ev Degani to resign from his position after 15 years.

Over the weekend, the school board held a meeting in which it decided to overrule Degani’s approval and ban the event from taking place. The principal subsequently stepped down, claiming his employer “barred high school alumni from making their voices heard.”

The Youth Against Dictatorship group, which has been rallying teenagers to refuse to serve in the IDF, had planned to “take over” the famous institution in protest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform drive.

“Starting in the afternoon [of Sept. 3], Youth Against Dictatorship activists will take over the Herzliya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv,” the organization announced last week. “Open classes will be held on the subject of activism and social struggles, led by representatives of Breaking the Silence and residents of Sheikh Jarrah [in Jerusalem].”

Local media quoted 17-year-old Tal Mitnick from Tel Aviv, one of the organizers, as saying, “We must stop the judicial revolution and we must stop taking part in a military that serves settlements and the occupation.”

Among other speakers, students were to hear from Saleh Diab, a violent terrorism supporter from Jerusalem’s Shimon HaTzadik/Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. Diab has been arrested numerous times for assaulting Jews, most recently in June on suspicion of attacking Shabbat worshippers with an iron rod. In 2014, he served eight months in prison for aggravated assault on a Jewish neighbor.

In an interview with Makor Rishon published on Thursday, Education Minister Yoav Kisch vowed to “deal with” Degani if the Herzliya Gymnasium continued to encourage students to evade IDF service.

“In the education system, also within the state education [system], there’s a very wide range and variety of opinions. … I am not here to dictate one or the other position,” said the minister, while warning that “if Degani is found to encourage [draft] refusal or evasion, he will be dealt with.”

The Education Ministry also threatened to cut funding, according to Channel 12. “Failure to comply with the law and guidelines may lead to the taking of various measures, including denial of recognition and budgeting for the educational institution,” acting Director General Meir Shimoni wrote in a letter.

Im Tirtzu, a Zionist NGO, hailed the board’s decision as “a win for sanity and a win for Zionism.”

“It’s great that the heads of the governing committee stood their ground. The leaders of Zionism would have turned over in their graves if they had known that there would be an event advocating refusal to serve held at the Herzliya Gymnasium,” said Im Tirtzu Chairman Matan Peleg.

The Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium was founded in 1905 as the first Hebrew high school in what was then Ottoman-controlled Palestine.

Degani clashed with successive right-wing governments.

In 2016, he invited members of Breaking the Silence to speak with students, defying calls from the Education Ministry to cancel the lecture. He also stopped sending delegations from his school on state-sponsored trips to the Auschwitz extermination camp, claiming they contributed to a “process of fascisization taking over politics in this country.”

Herzliya Gymnasium graduate Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, a former IDF chief of staff who went on to become foreign minister in a short-lived unity government in 2020-2021, has said that he is “ashamed” of his alma mater.

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