I was accepted into Anthropology Honours at UCT. I turned it down

Erin Dodo

By Erin Dodo

When I began my academic career at the University of Cape Town, the concept of Anthropology truly did appeal to me. Anthropology is defined as the study of societies and cultures –- and, as I came to learn, often the cultures ‘lesser known’ to the western world. I decided to make Anthropology my second major, the other being Political Science and Governance (and what I am actually doing my Honours in). 

Initially, I was fascinated. I found myself asking all the right questions, thinking all the right thoughts. If the goal of Anthropology was to challenge Western thought, I was doing the job. The aspect of Anthropology that drew me in the most was that, if we were to be studying culture, then my exploration into Jewish identity and culture would not only be accepted but celebrated. I was not the only Jew in the course that had this expectation.

As the University of Cape Town is renowned as the best academic institution in Africa, the department of Anthropology has a huge responsibility: not only must they maintain the reputation that precedes them, but they must continue to produce the research that has kept UCT on top.

 As we all know, whether some would like to accept it or not, Israel forms an integral part of our culture and history. More than that, Israel is the producer of some of the greatest anthropological thinkers and researchers. Their writing on peoplehood and community has shaped much of the anthropological thought that we digest in modern academia. 

When I was in first year in 2021, most of the University academic work was still online. It was during online lectures and tutorials for Anthropology that I had an experience that would forever shift how I engaged with the discipline. This happened when a fellow peer told us she refused to read anything written by someone born in Israel – referring to an essay written by another student we were instructed to peer-review.  

As it is in my nature to confront, I asked this student to engage with me on this, as I saw it as outrightly prejudiced. In the conversation I
was told Hamas’ existence is not only valid but welcomed in the resistance movement.

In my second year, I was voted onto the Students’ Representative Council at UCT, where I was the first Jewish student to sit on the UCT SRC in over 10 years. My position as Chair of SAUJS Western Cape is one of the things I am the most proud of and, when one of my Anthropology peers posted a photo of me, calling me a “Zionist murderer” apparently “exposing” what the future leadership at UCT looked like, I began to wonder if it was a coincidence that every negative experience about who I am as a Jew came from someone I had sat in a classroom with for our anthropology classes. But I was still enjoying Anthropology at this point; I was getting firsts consecutively; and related to a lot of the research. 

By third year, I had already been approached by the lecturers urging me to pursue Anthropology for my postgraduate career. However, it was an experience in my last few weeks of third year that helped me understand that my future was not in the Anthropology department. This happened after October 7th, when on the class group chat, the following was sent: ‘Anthropology is not a safe space for Zionists.’ 

I have never been shy about speaking out about my beliefs or my religion. I never will be. The crux of most of my academic research relies on my lived experience as a Jew as its core motivator. I am not afraid to engage with these people – in fact, I welcome it but, when I got my acceptance for Honours in Anthropology, I had to truly consider if what I had to say would be heard, or if it would all fall on deaf ears. 

Anthropology equipped me with some of the best critical thinking skills, and I would not be where I am in my leadership roles or in my own research without it – but I ended up turning down the opportunity to pursue Anthropology Honours at UCT. Despite the invaluable skills it equipped me with, the department’s refusal to provide a safe space for diverse perspectives, particularly regarding my Jewish identity and beliefs, has compelled me to redirect my academic journey. In a discipline meant to celebrate cultural diversity, the exclusion of certain narratives undermines the very essence of Anthropology. As I forge ahead into Honours in Political Science and Governance, I remain committed to championing inclusivity and fostering an academic environment where every voice, irrespective of origin or belief, is not only acknowledged but valued.

Erin Dodo writes a column reflecting the voice of Jewish youth in Cape Town. A student at the University of Cape Town, she serves as Chairperson of the Western Cape branch of the South African Union of Jewish Students.

• Published in the March 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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  1. It is now several years since it first occurred to me to distance myself from UCT. Your words do not make this any easier. I got my last degree from UCT in 1979 – at which time it was a proud institution – but those days are long gone. I’ve been wondering whether the Jewish graduates of UCT should organize a public meeting/function to collectively and publicly burn our degree certificates and express our disgust at what has happened to that once-venerable institution. It is now just a cesspool of the very racism which it claims to want to eradicate.


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