Ben Levitas
Ben Levitas

Israeli pianist’s performance disrupted by Wits students

On the evening of March 12 2013 an Israeli-born pianist’s performance to a full auditorium at Wits was disrupted and abruptly ended when anti-Israel protestors, which included members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) and the Muslim Students Association repeatedly broke into the auditorium.

Yossi Reshef is a world-renowned pianist, now residing in Berlin, Germany. He has performed in Britain, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Germany, Poland, Croatia, Spain, Russia and the US. Reshef and his entourage had to endure a hostile ”silent protest” on their way into the auditorium through a restive and hostile crowd. And a lecturer from the Wits music department was pushed and kicked as he attempted to enter the concert hall. Apparently while the security was focussed on preventing the group of about 50 protesters from obtaining entry into the hall, they succeeded in gaining entry through a fire exit door, entering with vuvuzelas and started to attack the Steinway piano. In the ensuing chaos, Reshef and several ambassadors in the audience were immediately evacuated by their security personnel. Apparently five members of the Wits SRC that were present in the audience failed to take any measures to stop the chaos.

This event should be viewed in the broader context that has engendered a culture of excluding all Israelis or even Israeli-born visitors from being welcome on South African campuses. By participating in practices reminiscent of the ”Judenrein” policies of Nazi Germany, our universities have lost their moral high ground. They can no longer claim to be bastions of free speech. On Sunday a group of Palestinian supporters tried to prevent Reshef from performing at the University of Stellenbosch. Having been forewarned, the university thankfully took preventative security measures, which allowed the concert to take place.

Last year Professor Jeffrey Kantor, an Israeli professor of sociology, was invited to a sociology conference at UCT. As he was about to start his address on a panel, a professor from the University of Johannesburg, interjected and demanded that if Kantor wished to proceed he should first apologise for the atrocities and human-rights abuses perpetrated by Israel. When the Kantor refused the professor, supported by many of his peers, called on the audience to boycott the lecture and everyone in the audience vacated the lecture hall, leaving only the Israeli professor and the sound technician.

What these two victims of boycott share is their association with Israel. The boycotters have dehumanised and debased them on that criterion only. Their values, political ideologies and beliefs are irrelevant. They are condemned because of being Israeli. They have convinced themselves that the nation of Israel, like apartheid, is a crime against humanity and must be exorcised from the planet. That is the danger of this apartheid analogy. Good people, the best among us, are condemned because of their place of birth. For Jews, the wounds of our history, of being hounded because of being born Jewish, are still too fresh. These Israelis, not coincidentally are Jewish.

What we share in common with other societies that target minorities is a widespread approval and sanction for these thoughts in South Africa, to attack anything Israeli: products, people, organisations and symbols. This open-season licence to target Israel flows from decisions to bestow legitimacy to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign by the ANC at its policy conference at Gallagher Estate in 2012 and subsequently in Mangaung in December 2012.

Leading up to these policy decisions the rhetoric emanating from the tripartite alliance partners, particularly from Zwelenzima Vavi, leader of Cosatu, has become increasingly accusatory. Ever since Vavi’s call In January 2009 on “all trade unions, social movements, NGOs, religious organisations and academics to support and actively participate in the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign against Israel” he has at almost every public appearance lambasted and condemned Israel. He has demanded that Israel be excommunicated from the family of nations — his calls are a metaphor for Israel’s demise and destruction. So in November during the lead up to Mangaung he called for “the intensification of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement by refusing all and any association with the state of Israel and its agents of whatever form” as well as for “intensified global marches”, “sit-ins in all Israeli embassies and night vigils” and more.

His partisan stance has opened the floodgates for hate speech to flow from all organisations and NGOs affiliated with the tripartite alliance, including the ANC Youth League. The Gauteng South African Students Congress recently hailed ”the heroic students of Wits for blocking the performance of the pianist Yossi Reshef who was sent by the Israeli embassy to disturb our 2013 Israeli Apartheid Week through performances geared to cover the murderous Israeli state”.

They moreover claimed that “this is a cheap and malicious trick by the Israeli lobby to undermine the solidarity work which South African students have been embarking on”. This is nothing short of conspiracy theorising and completely mendacious. Their members are not the “heroic students” they claim to be but rather a lynch mob baying for Israeli blood. They represent totalitarian forces, blind to reason with no sense and understanding of the liberties that they participate in on campuses, but deny to others.

They have been emboldened by the likes of Vavi of the correctness of their cause, which gives them the confidence to threaten the university authorities, should any retributive steps be taken: “We are aware of plans by the Wits management to intimidate students who participated in the protest through unwarranted inquiries and threats of suspensions and would like to warn them that the blood of many Palestinian children, mothers and fathers will be on their hands should any of the students be suspended.”

I implore university authorities to disallow any discrimination and sanctions against any person or country on all campuses and that they reaffirm their commitment to the rights of all to pursue knowledge and culture in a safe and conducive environment.

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