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The Jewish Report Editorial

Israel Apartheid Week will test Habib’s resolve

by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 10, 2014

Israel Apartheid Week will test Habib’s resolve

 GEOFF SIFRIN

Wits University was aflame last year with demonstrations around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when its new vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, came into the position. Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) was being held on campus.

Not an easy time to start, as he was struck full face with the violent disruption by members of the SRC of Israeli-born pianist Yossi Reshef’s concert 15 minutes into Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata, after they forced the door. The incident raised many eyebrows about how, at this renowned university, such a thing could happen.

Since then, Habib has endeavoured to re-establish the dignity and integrity of Wits as a place where different viewpoints can be freely expressed. He said at the time that he intended making Wits one of the great universities of the world.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict hasn’t gone away. As IAW 2014 takes off on Monday, there is a fear of a re-run of the ugly events of 2013.

Last year, insufficient clarity existed in the university’s guidelines for political protests, allowing demonstrators to engage in a free-for-all. Subsequently, Habib employed the services of an independent legal expert for a disciplinary hearing of 11 students charged with bringing the university into disrepute. The students were found guilty, which also had the effect of helping clarify what was permissible and what was not.

Habib was at pains not to destroy the futures of these students, but lines had to be drawn. The saga became bigger than an Israeli-related issue and more about university conduct as a whole.

To his credit, Habib has this year seemingly endeavoured to pre-empt disruptions at IAW by calling in the parties involved on both sides - the PSC and SAUJS - and establishing clear boundaries of acceptable conduct. Hovering over these guidelines is a weighty statement that improper behaviour will not be countenanced and will lead to consequences.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders. They must set an example. On paper, Habib’s stance seems clear and commendable. It remains to be seen, however, what will happen between theory and practice, when IAW actually gets underway.

Such an emotive topic is more difficult to manage than an ordinary student affair. The protagonists are so far apart that it is wishful thinking to expect to bring them together calmly.

Hate speech, abusive behaviour and even violence could result. Habib must be congratulated for assertively setting the standard of conduct before the event. But he must follow through with severe actions if the situation gets out of hand. As an educator and guardian of a prestigious university, his lesson must be that all views are entitled to be heard and given their space, but not in a way that silences other views, shouts them down or physically prevents others from expressing their allegiances, such as happened to Yossi Reshef.

With elections coming up in two months, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will increasingly become a political football, with parties intensely aware of the positions they project. It could lose or win them votes among Jews, Muslims and others. Disruptions around this question at one of the country’s most prestigious campuses and the authorities’ reaction to it could be a bellwether for the ethos of the run-up to the poll.

No-one is naïve enough to think the Wits students will eliminate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s tensions and accept a bland middle road. On the contrary, robust exchange of ideas and passionately held beliefs are essential to vibrant university life. But this does not mean licence for intimidation and assault.

We are watching closely to see if Habib’s stance of safeguarding civilised dialogue will prevail. If it does, he might be just the sort of vice-chancellor Wits needs in these controversial times, not only on this matter, but on others that critically affect the university.

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