The story the Board didn’t want read
A startling picture of anti-Israel bias and outright racism towards Jewish staff and students at Rhodes University has emerged in a report after a six-person Jewish leadership delegation went to Grahamstown in April to investigate complaints from the campus. Nobody could have expected the furore that followed – and only ended last month
Writing on wall for Rhodes’ Jewish students, staff?
This story was originally published on 25 April on MyShtetl under the headline RHODES ANTI-ISRAEL SHOCK and was read over 13,000 times, had numerous angry comments posted and was widely quoted.
Both the writer and Reich received several calls from members of the SAJBD in Joburg within hours of its publication – asking that the story be removed from the website. It was not. David Saks’ request that his report not be referred to as “The Saks Report” was accommodated and Rabbi Silberhaft, who had chaired the meeting, requested that his picture not be used. This, too, was promptly replaced with a Rhodes campus picture.
No fewer than six members of the national executive committee of the SAJBD and senior staffers expressed objection to the publication of the story to the writer, then MyShtetl’s publisher and/or Reich. Several staffers at Rhodes, both Jews and Christian Zionist, supported the publication of the story.
A startling picture of anti-Israel bias and outright racism towards Jewish staff and students at Rhodes University has emerged in a report after a six-person Jewish leadership delegation went to Grahamstown earlier this month to investigate complaints from the campus.
The delegation members were: Advocate Jonathan Silke (President, SAZF), Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft (SAJBD: Country Communities Department), Chuck Volpe (Chairman Eastern Cape Committee, SAJBD), David Saks (Associate Director, SAJBD), Leon Reich (SAZF), and Eitan Dubb (Treasurer: SA Union of Jewish Students).
Among the issues the delegation set out to address were to “Investigate reports of anti-Israel bias on the part of the university and of untoward pressure being brought to bear on staff or students who dissented,” and to “Establish the necessary facts on the ground with a view to meeting with the Rhodes Vice-Chancellor, Saleem Badat, to discuss the situation,” according to report drawn up by David Saks.
TOUGH NUT: Pictured at right – Larissa Klazinga
Organisational Jewry had originally been alerted to a possible problem on the campus after a Jewish member of staff at Rhodes had approached the SAZF president Silke, who in turn handed the matter over to Fed Mancom member Leon Reich. Reich lived in Grahamstown for many years and is both a former mayor and member of university council.
The meetings were chaired by “Travelling” Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft.
Getting to know each other
The delegation was briefed on situation on the campus by a Jewish senior staffer – one of the very few Jewish members of staff at the university. The staff member “has been subject to considerable harassment and pressure from line managers because of a pro-Israel stance,” says the report which was written by the Board’s associate director David Saks.
A Fed Mancom member, Leon Reich, told MyShtetl that he was “shocked” at what emerged from their discussions.
The delegation also met with Jewish students and former English lecturer Prof Wendy Jacobson. “Only three students (out of an estimated 15 to 20) attended, but expressed an interest in organising future Jewish-related activities, including a Shabbaton, with the Board’s assistance,” wrote Saks.
Investigation revealed startling political bias
A Jewish staffer detailed to the delegation a litany of considerable harassment and pressure from line managers because of the pro-Israel stance this staffer had adopted.
There was a great deal of anti-Israel bias within the Rhodes University establishment and Jewish students and staff are outraged over Rhodes’ overtly biased pro-Palestinian stance, says the Saks report, “to the extent of officially funding Israel Apartheid Week (IAW).”
“Discussions with (the staffer) and other Rhodes staff members revealed that, firstly, the university from the top down was de facto endorsing the agenda of the Israel Apartheid Week lobby and secondly that it was exerting untoward pressure and discriminating against employees and students who expressed dissent,” says the report.
One staffer in particular, said Saks, “was being subjected to pressure amounting to threats of dismissal.”
What the delegation learned
From discussions with Rhodes staff and ex-faculty members, says the report, the senior delegation of Jewish leaders learned that, among other things:
The Dean of Students’ office co-funded some of the 2013 IAW events despite vociferous objections. The Deputy Dean of Students insisted on changing the student web portal’s main banner to the IAW banner – despite objections of staff, societies and academics on campus.
During IAW, some pro-Zionist students put up posters pointing out that the Arab states kill gay people, deny rights to women and target Israel for terror. They were reported to the Registrar for putting up ‘racist’ material and formal disciplinary charges were now being investigated. None of those challenged to say why the posters were racist have been able to provide a coherent reason, yet they persist in describing them as such. An examination of the posters by the Board found them to be strictly factual without any elements that could reasonably be termed racist (SEE EXAMPLES BELOW). The university will decide today whether to prosecute.
Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Saleem Badat has been very public and vocal with regard to BDS. His two deputy vice-chancellors have also signed onto the BDS platform. IAW at Rhodes was mainly funded by the Humanities faculty, with contributions from the administration.
IAW and BDS at Rhodes are run under the banner of the Rhodes University Palestinian Solidarity Forum. Apart from operating under the name of the university as a whole, this body refuses to engage in any public debate, despite multiple approaches to do so. Those calling for debate are smeared as racists, Islamophobes, etc. In the normal course of academic discourse, one may argue for what one believes, but on this issue no other view is being permitted and the university is making itself a party to the process.
Atrocious treatment of Jewish staff
Some of the accusations that were recounted to the delegation with regard to the manner in which Rhodes’ management has treated staff include:
Being subjected to an extended smear campaign by certain academics who were pushing the BDS agenda. Pro-Israel supporters were called racist, supporters of apartheid, problems that had to be gotten rid of, and discrediting the university. This was in emails between various senior staff members
The Dean of Students accusing a Jewish staffer of “bringing the office into disrepute.” The staffer was told not to take a stand on the Israel-Palestine issue as an employee of the Dean’s office. However, said the staffer, others more senior in the administration had been taking an overt stance, including the vice-Chancellor and, hence why should Jewish staff not be allowed to?
A Jewish member of staff was told it would be “ill-advised” to organise the meeting with the visiting Jewish leadership delegation and the Grahamstown community (regardless of the fact that it was not being dine on Rhodes’ time).
A Jewish staff member wanted permission to assert their right to take a stand on the Israel-Palestine question, in view of the very public stance taken by VC Badat. The staffer, says the Saks report, “asked for written guidelines to be drafted to enable (Jewish staff) to understand where the boundaries lay.”
The reply: “The Vice-chancellor has final accountability for pronouncing on policy and principle in public.
The feelings of the students
The report said “It was felt, regrettably, that there were too few interested Jewish students remaining at the university to make a relaunch of SAUJS feasible.”
A desire, wrote Saks, “was nevertheless expressed by the students for there to be some Jewish content, such as the occasional Shabbaton. Mr Dubb, with the SAJBD and the Rabbi in Port Elizabeth will be liaising with them to arrange for this in future.”
The report recommends “establishing a Zionist support-group and network in Grahamstown. An interesting aside is that the Fed’s Reich told MyShtetl last night that he has had numerous phone calls from retired faculty-members, all Christian he says, who were upset at not having been invited to the meeting and all planning to attend the next one. At least six of the callers expressed alarm at the goings-on on campus, says Reich, “and they can’t be intimidated as they are all pensioners,” and therefore not beholden to the present administration.
Saks says the delegation found “there were striking expressions of strong support for Israel” among the local Grahamstonians, “as well as of strong indignation over the university’s biased stance and its financial support for BDS.”
The “selective outrage involved in singling out Israel, endorsing one side as if it was an established fact without providing for any kind of debate, was contrary to the ethos of any credible academic institution and at least bordered on anti-Semitism,” said Saks in his report.
A view was also expressed “that the BDS lobby were pursuing ‘Bolshevik’ tactics of targeting, intimidating and smearing individuals by operating behind the scenes. They were running away from open debate, and unsurprisingly since they were ideologically more aligned to Iran and Hamas than to genuine progressive opinion seeking a solution,” he reported.
“It was felt that the practice of victimising people for their views betrayed the Rhodes ethos and had to be confronted and exposed. Several participants spoke from a strong Christian Zionist perspective.”
A suggestion was made to send a petition to ex-Rhodians, detailing what has been transpiring at the university over the past several years and asking them to take a principled view on these issues.
“There was much support for a delegation meeting with the vice-Chancellor,” wrote Saks, to discuss “issues such as the university’s official stance on Israel and BDS, why it was financially supporting IAW and the right of members of staff to express dissent against it would be clarified.”
Saks said in his report that at the same meeting with the VC, the manner in which dissenters had been treated should be dealt with, and the university should be asked to take a clear stand against this.
A follow-upeeting meeting was set for mid-May, wrote Saks last April. No follow-up meeting ever took place.
Where to now for Rhodes’ Jewry?
In a concluding section of his extensive report termed “Looking Forward” David Saks lists an extensive number of proposals, including:
- The SAZF and SAUJS, with the involvement of the SAJBD in Port Elizabeth, will be following up with the contacts made re organising future Jewish and Zionist-related events in Grahamstown.
- Members of the delegation agreed that the SAJBD, SAUJS and the SAZF should be on hand to extend whatever support they can to those in the Grahamstown-Rhodes community looking to promote balance in the Middle East debate. This might at some point have to include providing legal assistance to staffers and those facing possible charges of disseminating racist material on campus.
- “Currently, threats of dismissal and/or disciplinary action are being employed to intimidate dissenters, which would seem to constitute a clear-cut violation of their rights to freedom of expression,” wrote Saks.
Watch this space to see how the story ends…
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