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Zionists and Wits students clash over jazz concert

The row at Wits University over an alleged racial and ethnic profiling tactic by Zionist organisations to control access to the Daniel Zamir Israeli Jazz Quartet concert intensified on Wednesday, as some staff and students protested on campus to show their disapproval of management’s decision to stage it.

A handful of staff members and students staged a silent protest outside the great hall, where the concert took place. Tawana Kupe, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for finance, explained to the small crowd that they couldn’t stage their protest inside the concourse of the hall. But the organisers maintained they had permission to picket inside.

Being a silent protest, songs were only murmured. But placards expressed displeasure against both the university’s decision to allow the concert, Zionism and the state of Israel.

"We say no to exclusionary Jewish-only events at our institution," read one placard, while another said, "don’t entertain Israel apartheid".  Another urged the university to "stop muzzling protest due to Israel lobby".

But some students were clearly frustrated by the form of protest. “Silent protest never achieved anything guys, we’re not a silent country,” one student was heard saying.

Tokelo Nhlapo, deputy president of the university’s students representative council (SRC), told the protestors they had to ensure Zionists do not use Wits to further their agenda. "Zionism will not be tolerated at this university," he said. "Not in our name."

Comparing Israel to apartheid, Nhlapo said the state, which has been in a bitter war over land with Palestine since 1948, must exist to promote everyone’s human rights, not just those of Jewish people.

The concert took place despite strong efforts this week by student groups and staff to lobby management to cancel it. Some post-graduate students and staff, including both academic and administrative, wrote letters to the university’s vice-chancellor Adam Habib on Wednesday, telling him of their condemnation "in strongest possible terms the racial/ethnic profiling" allegedly by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation.

The staff letter, which was initially sent to Habib on Tuesday but re-sent again of Wednesday as it gathered more signatories, said "disturbing audio recordings” released by the Wits University Palestine Solidarity Committee on Monday are "irrefutable proof" that the organisations pulled some tricks to ensure only Jewish people attended the concert.

While the ticket outlet listed tickets for the concert as sold out, it is confirmed in one recording that all tickets can be acquired from Beyachad. This is the centre housing the headquarters of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation. The organisations allegedly bought all the tickets.

A student is told in another recording that this measure, which included background checks upon supply of identity numbers, was to ensure that only Jewish people attend the event.

Restricting protest
The protesting students and staff described this as a tactic by the organisations to "preemptively restrict protest".  Both the post-graduate and staff letters said: "We remind the university that to disallow the event – on the grounds of the irrefutable proof that the [organisations] have behaved in a way that is inimical to the values of the university by infringing on the rights to dignity, equality, and protest of staff and students of the university – would not contravene academic freedom and/or the right to freedom of speech."

Shireen Ally, a sociology lecturer, told the M&G "staff are protesting against the racial profiling as well as the attempt to limit protest, as represented by the access control for the event as well as the ongoing prosecution of nine students for their protest action against the previous Israeli concert at Wits".

Zev Krengel, president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, accused the protestors in a statement on Wednesday of being the “self-same activists whose members were responsible for the disgraceful break-up of a piano recital by an Israeli musician on the same campus earlier this year”.

But the same people "now presume to cry ‘racism’ when steps are taken to prevent a repetition of such thuggish behavior", Krengel said.

"The assertion that only Jews are permitted to attend the concert is a gross falsehood," he said. "Those attending come from all over the racial, religious and ethnic spectrum."

'Oppressive regime'
Some most active pro-Palestine campaigns have cemented their voice at Wits. Besides work done by Wits University Palestine Solidarity Committee, the university’s SRC also has a resolution that condemns occupation of Palestine territories by Israel. The Zionist groups are also seen to be influential at the university, especially via financial contributions.

"As students we don’t want to be associated with an oppressive regime [Israel] that kills," Sibulelo Mgudlwa, president of the SRC told the M&G at the protest.

Responding to staff via his letter, which the M&G has seen, Habib said the concert was organised by the university’s music department and denied the Jewish organisations were given preferential treatment on ticket sales.

"Tickets for this event were … sold to the broader public. The Beyachad as an organisation purchased a number of tickets for the event and was not afforded any undue privileges in this regard,” said Habib.

In a statement on Wednesday Habib cited the promotion of diversity as a core reason for hosting the concert.

"The University remains a free space for the open exchange of ideas, even when groups hold opposing views on a matter," he said. 

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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