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23 July 2017 22:26 (South Africa)
Opinionista Rebecca Hodes

Rhodes and the Jews: a university debacle underscores the value of dissent

  • Rebecca Hodes
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    Rebecca Hodes
On 1 January this year, an article entitled ‘Jews Unwelcome At Rhodes University’ was published on the website of the South African Jewish Report. The article details the case of a Jewish staff member who was persecuted, and almost fired, for taking a pro-Zionist political stance as a Rhodes employee. It concludes that Rhodes University is hostile to Jewish students and staff, and that Jewish parents should avoid sending their children there. This is why it is wrong.

Over the last two years, a controversy has been unfolding on Rhodes campus that has been the source of much scrutiny among Jewish alumni. At its core were charges that senior Rhodes staff, including Vice-Chancellor Saleem Badat, were promoting a univocal stance on Israel – one that was avowedly anti-Zionist. Badat and numerous Rhodes professors had signed the petition supporting an academic boycott against Israel, apparently unswayed by the fact that Israeli academics are among the state’s most outspoken and influential critics.

It is notable that Badat signed the petition in his personal capacity, raising a number of challenging questions about intellectual authority, political autonomy, and the tension between the two within the upper echelons of the South African academy. Questions regarding the significance and professional permissibility of a pro- or anti-Zionist affiliation became ever more applicable as the Rhodes controversy unfolded. This was because a much more junior staff member was threatened with disciplinary action and potential dismissal for taking a pro-Zionist position, such as the display of the Israeli flag, at campus events.

The article was a follow-up to another story, ‘Rhodes campus anti-Israel shock: writing on wall for Jewish staff, students?’, published on the MyShtetl website in April 2013. Cosily named, the website is anything but. Rather than a convivial virtual village, it is better characterised as the rhetorical equivalent of the WWF ring combined with a how-to guide for starting a veriebel. The MyShtetl article received over 13,000 hits, making it among the most widely read pieces of the year. In addition to the substantial e-traffic is generated, its contents spurred heated discussions among Rhodes alumni, staff and students. It was the principal focus, for instance, of a lengthy Christmas lunch I attended with other Jews, an Atheist and a Jehovah’s Witness, a yuletide guestlist that portends the beginning of a bad joke, and half of which was comprised of Rhodes alumni.

At least part of the fascination with the Rhodes controversy stems from its campus intrigues. There’s nothing quite like a salacious story set at a university, a fact understood by a number of great novelists in recent decades, including Jeffrey Eugenides, Philip Roth, Donna Tart and, of course, J. M. Coetzee. The varsity scandal also boosts newspaper sales, as the Sunday Times revelations about sexual harassment at Wits, and the Mail and Guardian’s piece about Rhodes sexual culture both revealed.

Ant Katz, the author of the articles about Rhodes, was clearly aware of the sensational appeal of a good campus debacle. His first article provided a lurid account of ‘anti-Israel bias and outright racism towards Jewish staff and students’, connoting, not the least in its title, the demise of a Jewish presence at Rhodes. The second article provides more detail about the series of events that led to the departure of a Jewish staff member, Larissa Klazinga. While a non-disclosure agreement signed between Klazinga and Rhodes shrouds parts of the story in mystery, Klazinga’s own account provides compelling evidence of coerced conformity to a particular ideological position on Israel-Palestine at Rhodes.

More compelling still is the fact that a special committee was convened by Rhodes Human Resources, under the stated auspices of the Vice Chancellor, to discuss eighteen charges brought against Klazinga at an Orwellian-sounding ‘incapacity hearing’. All of these were ultimately dismissed, and, with the assistance of an advocate and labour lawyer, Klazinga, who wished to leave Rhodes in the aftermath of the wrangle, negotiated a settlement. The fact that Rhodes was willing to pay-up so long as she would shut-up, and that none of the charges against her withstood legal scrutiny, leaves Rhodes looking decidedly like the guilty party.

In some senses, the controversy serves as a microcosm for the broader, public debate about Israel-Palestine in South Africa, reflecting the polarisation of the debate between pro- and anti-Zionists. But its location on a university campus adds a level of complexity, connected to a more generalised concern, particularly among the local Jewish community, that public spaces for critical engagement about Israel-Palestine are narrowing. The Rhodes controversy also highlighted an aspect of the debate that is often publicly elided, and that is doubly difficult to discuss within the South African academy. This is the uncomfortable recognition that particular perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict are frequently tied to religious and community affiliations.

Many South African academics would balk at attempts to pin someone’s political beliefs to her ethnic identity. Talk of this kind elicits a deep cringe, a justified reaction against ascribing a political proclivity – in true apartheid style – on the basis of an imagined or distorted ethnicity. But this is different to acknowledging that people are the products of their social histories and circumstances, and that this influences their political opinions in decisive ways. Rhodes students do not present as blank political slates. They move to Grahamstown accompanied by troves of ideological clutter, some of which may be unpacked and sorted in the course of their degrees, most especially if they make good use of the library.

Unspoken in the official correspondence about the Rhodes controversy, and spoken about at length among Rhodes Jewish alumni, is what institutional and academic support for anti-Zionism at Rhodes means for Jewish students. Are the ideological barriers between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism sufficiently fortified on South African university campuses? Probably not - as the singing of Dubul’ iJuda/Shoot the Jew at an anti-Zionist protest on Wits campus last year demonstrated. But does this mean that Jewish staff and students are not welcome at Rhodes, as the Jewish Report article suggests? Does it mean that Jewish parents should consider sending their kids to study elsewhere?

My responses to these questions are based on my own formative and deeply beneficial experiences as a Jewish student at Rhodes. Admittedly, I graduated over a decade ago, but many of the staff members - lecturers, librarians and administrators - who collectively determined the university’s institutional culture, are still hard at work there.

In my four years at Rhodes, I learnt a crucial lesson about being Jewish in South Africa, and one that bears repeating in the context of fears about anti-Zionist or even anti-Semitic hostility at Rhodes. The lesson is this: the world is not a Jewish day-school. During my studies at Rhodes, I was exposed to some challenging ideas, including during a history course for which Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry was prescribed reading. Some of my notions about being Jewish were fundamentally reconfigured, others have remained steadfast, sharpened through the imperative of articulation. I once had to explain to a very smart fellow student exactly what was objectionable about the expression, ‘Don’t be so Jew with the sugar’. In essence, my years at Rhodes developed my sense of intellectual autonomy, trained me in discerning the ideological contours of an argument, and taught me that it’s always better to do the readings. This triumvirate of lessons is perhaps the crux of a university education.

If my annual returns to Rhodes are anything to go by, the university community is becoming more diverse and progressive. The irony here is that part of this transformation is attributable to the work of the very staff member at the centre of the anti-Zionist controversy. Perhaps more than any other single employee, Klazinga has shaped progressive shifts in Rhodes’ student subculture, including through instituting and running an annual protest against gender-based violence, now South Africa’s largest and most long-standing event of its kind. Klazinga’s departure is a loss to Rhodes, the more so because her mismanagement at the hands of its administration has damaged the university’s reputation.

Should Rhodes employees be entitled to their own political opinions about Israel-Palestine, and to argue vociferously and publicly in support of these? The answer is clearly yes. And should these same Rhodes employees champion the right of rigorous, public engagement with their students and colleagues, some of whom may hold other opinions? Again, the answer is yes. It is up to Rhodes staff and students to ensure that the terms of respectful engagement are maintained, and to intervene when the line between disagreement and harassment is breached. In the meanwhile, Jewish students, staff members and alumni will continue to stir themselves into the Rhodes mix, valuing the education and the diversity that the university offers. DM

Rebecca Hodes is a historian based at the University of Cape Town.

  • Rebecca Hodes
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    Rebecca Hodes

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