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UCT prof targeted for exam depicting antisemitism

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UCT 4 Palestine, a small, extremist anti-Israel group at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has launched a petition against a respected law professor demanding that he face “immediate and severe disciplinary action”. The petition is in response to an exam question he set that describes a fictitious terrorist attack outside a Jewish school in Cape Town, bringing to the fore the possible repercussions of the rise in antisemitism.

WP Schreiner Professor of Law at UCT, Anton Fagan, has been a persistent voice in questioning the dominant narratives around the Israel-Gaza war since 7 October both at UCT and further afield.

In the question Fagan set, which examined law students on delict – a violation of the law – the perpetrator, who one later reads isn’t Muslim, shouts “Allahu Akbar!” before opening fire on Jewish pupils and their families, killing several of them. Security guards fire at the perpetrator, but cause death and injury to innocents. Students are asked to look at possible negligent and wrongful failures of the security company and the guards employed by it.

The UCT 4 Palestine petition, created on 25 May, states that the fact-set “portrayed deeply offensive, Islamophobic stereotypes and harmful rhetoric towards Muslim and Palestinian students. This is a symptom of white supremacist ideology being perpetuated and protected at UCT.

“The fact-set went so far as to name and give ages to the children it claimed were murdered, exploiting violent imagery to traumatise students while totally erasing the actual loss of countless Palestinian children’s lives due to Israeli occupation and genocide,” it stated. “While Palestinian families grieve their real slain children, Fagan chose to fabricate racist lies painting Palestinians as terrorists and Israelis as noble victims.”

In the exam-question scenario, “The security guards returned fire, but none of their shots found their target. The uncle of one of the children, who was visiting from Israel and had served in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], took one of the security guards’ rifles and fired at the terrorist. He was killed instantly.”

The reader then learns that the fictional perpetrator was Scottish, schizophrenic, a neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denier, had been arrested for assaulting someone at a pro-Israel march, and had sent threatening emails to the school in question.

The petition goes on to say that “glorifying and idolising the Israeli occupation forces [Israeli army], is an intolerable endorsement. This is especially egregious given the South African government’s firm position of prosecuting its citizens who attempt to join the Israeli military. For an academic to undermine the state’s stance is an inexcusable ethical breach.”

The petition states that “this paper was seemingly crafted as retaliation against UCT’s senate vote declaring criticism of the Israeli state as not antisemitic. Promoting racist conspiracy theories to justify ethnic cleansing is criminal hate speech. The university cannot claim to uphold values of ‘transformation’ while empowering staff like Fagan to disseminate genocidal propaganda that deliberately traumatises students amid an active genocide against Palestinians.

“Most critically, the fact that Fagan chose to inject his racist Zionist fantasies and Islamophobic propaganda into an exam is an unacceptable violation of his role,” the petition states. “Fagan effectively held students’ academic success hostage to his own personal bias.”

The petitioners demands “full transparency into all processes that allowed this material to be approved; an independent, external investigation into all law faculty leadership; and that the law faculty undertake comprehensive restructuring guided by anti-racist, decolonial frameworks”.

Fagan told the SA Jewish Report, “The examination process involving the delict question is still underway. I’m therefore not at liberty to say much about it.”

However, he shared what he wrote to his students in light of the petition. “Of course, the case that I created didn’t have to involve a massacre at a Jewish school. But the war in Gaza and the protests it has caused have been very much in my thoughts, as, I’m sure, they have been in yours. I like to make my fact-sets topical, so, the first thing that came to mind as I was casting about for a setting for the ‘security company case’ I had to create, was a shooting at a Jewish school.

“From that starting point, one idea led to another. For example, the security guards had to be inept, so someone else had to step in to save the day. It’s a Jewish school, so who else than a former member of the IDF?”

When he drafted the fact-set and findings, “I knew that it was possible that some would be surprised by the revelation at the end [that the perpetrator wasn’t Muslim],” wrote Fagan. “I knew it was possible that some of you, possibly because you are in the thrall of certain stereotypes about Muslims, or about the kind of man who wears a keffiyeh and shouts, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and shoots parents and children outside a Jewish school, would, having read only the first paragraph, draw the conclusion that the man was Muslim.

“But this doesn’t in any way entail that I endorse these stereotypes. On the contrary, I was subverting those stereotypes. Your surprise shows that you haven’t yet mastered a critical legal skill, which is not to draw conclusions prematurely.

“It’s true that I’ve published several pieces about the conflict in Gaza. However, contrary to what the authors of the petition believe, nothing in the fact-set or findings expresses, reflects, or presupposes any of the views that I put forward in those pieces.”

Mark Oppenheimer, an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, says, “Having read the exam paper, it’s abundantly clear that there’s nothing Islamophobic about it in any way whatsoever. No-one mentioned in the exam is even Muslim. What’s clear is that the question is an excellent way of testing students’ ability to understand a complicated set of facts, the law of negligent omissions, and to see if students make assumptions when the facts don’t warrant it.

“Professor Fagan is one of the most admired legal academics at the University of Cape Town. He’s renowned for maintaining rigorous standards of assessment, which makes him unpopular with weaker students looking for an easy pass. The UCT 4 Palestine petition is an outrageous attack on a professor who dared to express an independent view on the Israel/Gaza conflict. The demand that students be given a fresh exam is a cynical attempt to improve their grades.”

Sara Gon, the director of the Free Speech Union of South Africa, says, “Sadly, one could have anticipated that there would be outrage about ‘harmful’ stereotyping [in the exam]. ‘Harmful’ is a matter of choice that accords with the ‘faux frailties’ associated with progressive left. Would students have been outraged if the question was worded in terms of stereotypes associated with the other side? Freedom of speech and academic freedom at universities should always be about challenging and provoking, but not just for students.”

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola told the SA Jewish Report, “UCT has been made aware of concerns relating to one exam paper in the faculty of law. UCT is addressing the issue through the applicable internal channels. The university will provide any updates as and when necessary once all internal processes have been concluded.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Gary

    May 30, 2024 at 6:26 pm

    Islamophobic? Lets discuss Israelophobia!

  2. Gary

    May 30, 2024 at 6:34 pm

    The rich irony of this is the poisonous rantings of UCT 4 Palestine confirm the worst stereotypes about Muslims

  3. Robert Mancusso

    Jun 1, 2024 at 6:15 pm

    What’s the bet that Prof Fagan is either disciplined for this exam question, or the exam is redrafted to allow for those ”traumatised” students to retake it.

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