A South African University Struggles With Its Soul About Israel

Irony bit deep as Jewish alumni, former anti-apartheid protesters, found themselves targeted by a BDS demonstration against an Israeli concert at Wits University, Johannesburg.

Geoff Sifrin
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Geoff Sifrin

A proud bastion of anti-apartheid, Wits University, found itself the target last week after the Johannesburg school hosted an Israeli jazz quartet - triggering a round of protests by anti-Israel activists.

During the era of apartheid, the 1960s to the 1980s, Wits University in Johannesburg seethed with protest. The school offered academic studies into apartheid. Anti-apartheid NGOs proliferated, run by students and faculty, many of them Jewish. Students mounted picket lines and police broke up demonstrations and made arrests.

Last Wednesday evening, Wits’ tradition took an ironic twist. Jewish erstwhile activists, now in their 60s and 70s, revisited their alma mater for a concert featuring Israeli saxophonist Daniel Zamir and his quartet in the Great Hall – the venue where they had attended anti-apartheid meetings – and found themselves walking through picket lines manned by demonstrators with white tape over their mouths. Placards condemned ‘apartheid Israel’, and accused the newly appointed Wits’ principal, Professor Adam Habib, of ‘silencing’ them.

Five months earlier, during "Israel Apartheid Week" on campus, the Israeli-born pianist Yossi Reshef had abandoned his concert at Wits after 15 minutes as BDS demonstrators stormed the hall. Reshef was escorted out by security. The university had apologized for the debacle and billed last week's concert as a replacement for it, as proof of its impartiality.

Following the furor last week, heavy criticism of Wits University ensued. Its alumni worldwide, who as youngsters were molded in its political cauldron, accused it of betraying principles of free speech. Jewish benefactors reportedly threatened to withhold funding.

Habib is a strong critic of Israel. Two years ago he was associated with ending research ties on water purification between the Ben Gurion University of the Negev and the University of Johannesburg, where he was then based. Pro-Palestinian groups had argued that BGU’s links to the Israeli army made it complicit in Palestinian oppression.

Now Habib faced the task of repairing Wits’ reputation by ensuring it provided a safe place for Israel-related events, thus the Zamir concert – in lieu of the aborted Reshef one. He ordered campus security to make sure the concert went ahead.

An ironical deja-vu

Johannesburg's Jews came en masse. Some 1,000 people arrived, not all of whom were interested in jazz - this event was more political than musical.

The Israeli ambassador attended. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, community leaders, and young people with no personal memory of Wits of yore came. They ranged from left to right in views on Israel - most came for its right to be represented on campus, regardless of policies.

Other attendees included a student in Wits’ heyday in the ‘60s, the daughter of Isie Maisels, the advocate who led the defense for Nelson Mandela at the famous Treason Trial in the 1950s. Another was a one-time member of the SA Voluntary Service, a student organization building schools for black communities – in those days his name was Charles, but in the intervening years he joined Chabad, changed his name to Tzemach, and now sports a white beard and black coat. They greeted each other in the Great Hall lobby, not demonstrators now, but their target - an ironical deja vu.

True to Habib’s promise, security manned every doorway to the hall. A middle-aged Jewish man swore at protesters trying to elbow past: “Fuck you! I have two degrees from Wits. This my university, I will not let you take it away…”

BDS claimed success in getting the South African jazz icon Carlo Mombelli, scheduled as the opening performance, to withdraw, saying he did so "as his conscience does not allow him to participate."

Despite the movement's efforts the concert went ahead. Zamir’s quartet thrilled the mainly Jewish audience. Pianist Omri Mor was ‘stupendous’, according to a respected music critic. At one point Zamir performed a jazzed-up rendition of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, sending triumphal ripples through the hall.

Split in BDS' ranks

But Habib’s security couldn’t control everything. A few demonstrators sang “dubula e juda” (“shoot the Jew”), according to university newspaper "Wits Vuvuzela." BDS coordinator Muhammed Desai told the paper, “The whole idea [of] anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion.”

According to the paper, Desai said many African people in South Africa - when using the word “Jews” - meant it in the same way they would have during the eighties: “Just like you would say kill the Boer at funeral during the eighties it wasn’t about killing white people, it was used as a way of identifying with the apartheid regime.”

The incident split BDS ranks, however. Two well-known Jewish pro-Palestinian activists, Nathan Geffen and Doron Isaacs, leaders of an NGO called ‘Open Shuhada Street’ which highlights Israeli actions against Palestinians, declared publicly: “We support BDS South Africa's right to protest but the behavior of the protesters and Desai's subsequent comments simply cannot be justified. We call on BDS South Africa to issue an unequivocal apology and to commit to stamping this out.”

Despite the developments, Johannesburg's Jewish community seemed was upbeat after the concert. SA Jewish Board of Deputies president, Zev Krengel, praised Habib’s handling: “I could not fault Wits in any way.”

Some people perceive the saga as a struggle over Wits’ soul, echoing other campuses like Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, where Jewish students report feeling anxious about openly identifying with Israel. The Students Representative Council at Wits has seen the ostracizing of Israel and of Israel's supporters as a just cause, recently declaring a boycott on Israel. SRC members led demonstrators at the Reshef concert, for which they face disciplinary hearings.

Others take a cooler view, saying young students naturally want to change the world and don’t always understand the complexities – it was the same during apartheid.

In any case “Apartheid Israel” has become an emotive rallying cry and things could get worse for Israel on South African campuses.

As for Habib, he sits between a rock and a hard place. Following his stand on the concert, he will be expected to continue ensuring a safe space for Israeli events at Wits – while under pressure to do the opposite by BDS, whose broad political stance he has empathized with.

Wits University. Credit: TAKURIAN / WIkicommons

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