Habib was brutally honest on Israel at Limmud
Personally, said Habib, he was a severe critic of Israel and did not accept it as a “Jewish” state. “I do not believe, in a cosmopolitan world, in a state project that is ethnically or religiously defined. That means I am just as critical of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran.
“In a world where challenges are becoming transnational, we are going to have to learn to operate across religious, cultural, and national boundaries. A brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity is essential. Ethnic, religious and linguistic states are dangerous and an anachronism.”
Habib also criticises Israel because he believes “it has used overwhelming force… and there have been huge civilian casualties. But I am just as critical of Hamas, Syria and Iran, both on the state project that they have, but also the way they deploy their militaries.”
RIGHT: Professor Adam Habib at Wits
Habib made it clear that he wears two hats, however. And in his official capacity at Wits, he was determined that the campus will remain an open space for debate – which includes ensuring that both pro-Israel and anti-Israel views can be freely expressed.
“I will participate in that debate. But I will guarantee that my own strong viewpoints will not dominate and prevent other people from being heard. Wits has a multiplicity and plurality of views and a strong tradition of robust, open debate. I want to keep that open, because it is through this that we can craft a new human consciousness.”
Habib then pointed to an issue which has become highly relevant to supporters of Israel in recent weeks: It is all very well denouncing the people who unfairly criticise Israel for being anti-Semites, racists, etc. But first, he said, we need to denounce the racists within our own community.
His talk took place after a terrible week in Israel, in which alleged Jewish religious extremists murdered a Palestinian baby by throwing a Molotov cocktail into his family’s house – and in a period when cries of “Kill the Arabs” are becoming more frequently heard among Jewish ultra-nationalists in the settler movement and elsewhere.
Have South African Jews been sufficiently outspoken in condemning racism within the local Jewish community, and among Jews in Israel?
“I find it offensive,” said Habib, “that we are always prepared to call out the racists among the other, but never in our own midst. I mean this about all communities in South Africa, not just the Jewish community. Unless we have the courage to call out the racists within our own communities as much as we call out the racists in other communities, we are never going to get far.
“You would not believe how many times I have had people say to me that they are committed to free speech on the Wits campus, but not for ‘those guys’, because their views are ‘offensive’.
“People have said, ‘Mcebo Dlamini [the former SRC president who posted ‘I love Hitler’ on his Facebook page] is a bloody racist, but all blacks are like that’. I have also criticised BDS for not calling out the racists in their own midst. Until you do that, your claim to have a ‘human rights’ agenda sounds hollow. It is amazing, our propensity not to internalise and self-reflect.”
After his talk, Habib took a question from the audience from Michael Freeman, Israeli’s deputy ambassador, on whether he believes Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.
Habib answered by confirming what he had started with: “Do I accept the right of Israel to exist? Yes. But it should be a democratic, multicultural state. The same should apply to all the states in the Mideast. I don’t believe in Islamic states or Jewish states. My model is actually the United States, or the South African constitution. That does not mean that I think Israel should be destroyed – it will have to evolve into a cosmopolitan state.
“Our future as humanity is dependent on us beginning to transcend national boundaries. We must unite across those communities. I, as a practising Muslim, have far more in common with progressive Jews and Christians than with conservative or reactionary Muslims.”
Habib touches on a very sensitive issue. The truth is that Israelis and Jews themselves have not clearly defined what it means for Israel to be a “Jewish state”. Is it just a state with a majority of Jews?
- Geoff Sifrin is former editor of the SAJR. He writes this column in his personal capacity