Wits graduation photoshoot hijacked by pro-Palestinian students
Four Jewish sixth-year University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) medical students were excluded from the formal photograph of their graduating class on Tuesday, 30 November, because of pro-Palestinian activists refusing to remove their keffiyehs in Palestinian colours, which they wore in protest against Israel.
“It was very upsetting that we weren’t in our graduation photo. This was supposed to be a chance for us to celebrate becoming doctors, but instead, the photograph looks like manufactured marketing and a vehicle for the pro-Palestine cause,” Lisa Jacobsberg, one of the Jewish medical students concerned, said.
Jacobsberg said that, though the incident was in no way dangerous or aggressive, she felt that the graduation photoshoot wasn’t the time or place for this type of political demonstration.
The medical students were scheduled to have three photographs taken of their graduating class. The first was set to be a formal photograph where they were instructed to wear all-black with their stethoscopes around their necks. The second would be an informal photograph. In the third, they would be allowed to wear whatever they wanted, including religious and traditional dress. However, what might sound to an outsider like a simple photoshoot was derailed and resulted in some students having to exclude themselves from their graduation class photographs altogether.
Liat Azizollahof, another of the Jewish students, told the SA Jewish Report that a protest by her classmates who support Palestine caused her and three other Jewish students to leave the photoshoot. Several students arrived wearing white lab coats over their black outfits and keffiyehs in Palestinian flag colours. This went against the dress code of the first scheduled photograph, which caused the photographer to tell the class representative to inform all the students to remove all accessories and any items which didn’t adhere to the all-black outfit and stethoscope dress code for the first photograph. The students wearing lab coats and keffiyehs refused to remove these items, and stated that they were dressed this way to show their support for the doctors of Gaza. They demanded that the third scheduled photograph should be taken first, stating that they would take off these items for subsequent photographs.
The photographer didn’t want to give in to these demands and wanted to stick to the schedule that had previously been decided upon. The class representative tried to negotiate between the photographer and the students. While the photographer wanted the formal photograph to show unity, the protesting students said that they didn’t feel united with their fellow students and, in a greater sense, with anyone not supporting Palestine following the attack on 7 October and ongoing conflict.
Four of the Jewish students, including Azizollahof, felt uncomfortable with this situation, and decided to leave the photoshoot. They said they would rejoin when the matter had been resolved and all students were dressed according to the formal photograph’s dress code.
Unfortunately, the pro-Palestinian students continued to make a fuss, which resulted in the four Jewish students not being featured in the graduating class photograph meant to be a celebration of six years of hard work and studying.
Azizollahof said that an Instagram page has since posted the photo with a caption stating that Wits medical students stand with Palestine, which makes it look like she, Azizollahof, and the two other Jewish students support Palestine too.
Jacobsberg said the incident was passive aggressive, as the students who refused to remove their lab coats and keffiyehs were announcing to everyone present that anyone who didn’t support their cause supported genocide instead of speaking directly to the Jewish students who were right there.
While some students have since apologised to her for what happened, Jacobsberg still feels disheartened, especially since the photograph was organised by the graduation committee, not Wits itself, and they funded the photoshoot themselves.
Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said, “While we understand the deep emotion that the Israel-Gaza war elicits in each one of us, it’s deeply regrettable how this is causing such rifts between fellow South Africans.
“Though advocacy and solidarity have a role to play at times like this, it’s regrettable when they are imported into work, university, and school situations, causing such dissension and division,” she said.
“A group of graduates like these have formed relationships over six years of their degree, and in one gesture, all that will be remembered is this ending. While these displays cause such hurt and polarisation, they have absolutely no impact on the situation in the Middle East. We have been in touch with Wits to discuss our concerns, and will hopefully meet with it to discuss these issues further.”
Unfortunately, the four Jewish students won’t have a graduation class photograph to look back on when they reminisce about their studies and becoming young doctors. Though they are grateful that the situation didn’t turn violent, they believe campuses should have spaces where all students, regardless of their political beliefs or religion, can feel safe to be themselves and experience unity with their peers.
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, the vice-chancellor of Wits, does not dispute any of the students’ accounts of the incident and said that in terms of events resulting from the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, “I hope that things do not escalate further than this incident and that the university can end the academic year on a good note following graduation ceremonies next week.”