Guest Column

Adam Habib: Wits allows for plurality of perspectives

2015-03-20 12:26

Professor Adam Habib responds to a recent open letter by Howard Feldman who wondered if Wits University had lost its way.

Dear Mr Feldman

I am pleased that we both recognise that Wits University is a great institution with a long and proud history of enabling public debate. We are similarly in agreement about the need to protect this legacy and to ensure that the University continues to enable public debate. I also appreciate the fact that you have recognised that, whatever my personal views, I have always ensured that all students, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist or other, are provided with a safe space in which to develop their thoughts and discussions. What is important, however, is to understand how this should be achieved.

During an event hosted by the Wits School of Public Health on 16 March 2015, I read out a letter that had been sent to me by the Israeli Ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk. I read the letter because he asked me to do so. It contained certain assumptions about the manner in which alternative viewpoints must be represented. In particular, Ambassador Lenk raised an objection to the fact that the organisers of the event had, in his estimation, invited a one-sided audience.

In my response to Ambassador Lenk, both during the event and in a personal letter that was sent to him afterwards, I questioned whether it was necessary for every side of a debate to be represented in every engagement. If this were true, then many of the events that have been hosted by all sides of the Israel-Palestine debate on our campus would not have been allowed to take place. Rather, what is important in creating an enabling environment for public debate is to allow a plurality of perspectives to be articulated by the totality of engagements that take place at the University.

With regard to your criticism of the report, it is your right to engage in such criticism. However, it is not my report and it must be defended by the academics in question. As for whether the University is misdirected in its focus, we have many debates on many issues, including the South African public health system.

With regard to the notification about the Palestinian delegation from Ramallah that is visiting Johannesburg at the invitation of the Executive Mayor, please note that this invitation was sent out by the Wits SRC and the City of Johannesburg. The event is not an official function of the University or my office. It is a joint event which involves the Mayor’s office and the SRCs of Wits and the University of Johannesburg. The University has a policy of encouraging open debate and we do not control or determine the speakers of any of our student societies or staff associations.

On your final point regarding my response to a question from the audience, I would like to reiterate what I said on that evening: An academic boycott is a very serious matter for a university to contemplate. It should only be done under the most serious of circumstances and it should not simply be the decision of the Vice-Chancellor. Given the gravity of the act, it must involve the entire academic community and be ratified by all the university’s substantial structures: Faculty boards, Senate and Council. Only then, should a university declare itself in support of an academic boycott. Given these onerous requirements, which are necessary in my view, and the gravity of such an act for a university, it has only been done once on a wholesale basis – against South African institutions in Apartheid South Africa. Should individuals want to consider an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, then they must follow this same path.

In conclusion, I would also like to reiterate what I have said previously when expressing my concern about the emotional nature of the responses on the Israel-Palestine debate. Too often, rational discourse based on facts and evidence is replaced by emotional outbursts determined by ethnic and tribal loyalties. This is, I believe, truly counterproductive in a cosmopolitan world.

Yours sincerely
Adam Habib

- Professor Adam Habib is Vice-Chancellor and Principal at Wits University.


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