An Open Letter to Professor Adam Habib

2015-03-18 14:55

I am a graduate of Wits University. I was Editor of the Wits Law Journal and part of the first non-racial Law Student Council in 1992. For the first time Black and White students campaigned against each other, debated each other and then finally, when the votes were counted, worked together to start to bridge the chasms and to forge new paths. It was only the beginning and as young as we were, we understood the long and complex road ahead. But we were proud of our march towards democracy and I recall so clearly the excitement with which we contemplated and mulled over what we, as law students, would include in the South African Constitution that was yet to written.

And then earlier this week I started following a story that made me wonder if the university hasn’t lost its way. I came across an invitation to the Launch of the “No Safe Place – Gaza 2014 – a report from a Medical Fact Finding Mission.” The evening, Prof Adam Habib, chaired by you, was set to be a round table discussion by two of the authors of the report.

On hearing of the event, Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, sent a letter explaining his concerns as to the biased nature of the report (given the history of those who compiled it) and asked to be able to present a counter view. The VC made the decision to read out the letter from the Ambassador and stated that “having a counter to an opinion is not necessary.”

Well, actually Professor, when the very basis of the report is questionable and when you are the leader of an academic institution, well then, actually, with no disrespect,it might well be necessary. Further, your comment that “Ethnic loyalty / religion defines the discourse on Israel and Palestine rather than methodology” And that “This is a problem.” Is absolutely correct. Indeed I am not sure that I could have said it better myself, but one has to wonder why the Prof didn’t pay close attention to his own advice.

Because one doesn’t have to scrape much below the surface to note that the so called “fact report” was compiled by those with a long history of animosity towards the Jewish State, that the report ignored the fact that rockets were being fired from within or close to medical facilities and that it was so thin on forensic evidence as to render it questionable.

And whereas there is no doubting that tragically the innocent were wounded and killed in Gaza, the fact that the report makes no mention of the “Fact” that Gaza was undermined with tunnels which could well have provided safe haven for the residents (especially as they were warned about impending attacks) makes the report and indeed the academic process flawed and suspect.

One has to wonder if the discussion precluded debate and the healthy discourse – a value of any respectable academic institution, then what indeed was the point?

One also has to wonder if we are not perhaps a little misdirected in our focus; given the appalling condition of the collapsing South African Public health system, where daily patients are turned away and unable to receive much needed medical treatment, where life altering surgery is delayed for as long as seven years, and where medical staff are so over worked and stretched that they buckle under the strain. And where so many on the African continent are unable to receive efficient medical treatment, that this obsessive focus is actually doing this country and this continent damage.

That Wits University chooses to focus on Gaza would be acceptable, if debate was encouraged and if perspective allowed. But let us not forget this is the incubator for the infamous “Shoot the Jew” war cry and the venue where anyone with a counter view is shouted down and intimidated into keeping quiet. The Pavlovian response to all things Israel disallows discourse, encourages bias and no doubt will serve the university poorly.

Earlier today your office sent out a notification to all students that next week is Palestinian week (not to be confused with last week’s Israel Apartheid week) and in celebration thereof you have invited a guest from Ramallah to speak at the University. The guest? Dr Husam Zomlot the same person who suggested on BBC that Israel “fabricated” the beheading of James Foley as well as the European holocaust. Seriously? Healthy debate or continued and repeated bashing of one cause at the expense of all others? And anyone, of any standard, it seems will do. Surely your university demands better than that? Will it end, as it did in Durban with a call for your Jewish students to be barred from Wits? It’s not a stretch Professor, it happened a few short weeks ago.

And then there is the disturbing quote from Cii Radio today where you are reported to have said that “Wits will only sever ties with Israel if its structures request it.” You go on to explain that “University processes will need to be followed to arrive at such an end” highlighting even more so that a “Counter opinion” is not just necessary, but critical. These are not small decisions.

Professor Habib, you of all people know and have acknowledged that robust debate is necessary. Even given your outspoken views on Israel, you have to-date ensured that your University is a safe place for your Jewish children. You have protected their rights time and time again. No one suggests that you need to change your belief system. But you do need to listen to an alternative view and you need to question the integrity of reports that you present as fact. You need to question the bias of the authors and you need to hear concerns. Everything that you stand for demands that you do.

Wits University is a beautiful and proud campus. Its academic standard is world-renowned. We have stood and continue to stand tall amongst our peers. Please protect that legacy. Please make sure that its not just a memory of what was.

Read Professor Habib's response to this post here.

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