The coming academic boycott of Israel at UCT?

Sara Gon | 28 August 2017

Sara Gon writes on the campaign on campus to cut all ties with the Jewish state

A poster has appeared on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus advertising a festival of talks promoting an Academic Boycott of Israel. It is hosted by “Israel Academic Boycott”.

The programme of events is:

22 August - What is the academic boycott of Israel? How would it be implemented at UCT? - Speakers Prof. Andrew Nash and Nurina Ally

29 August - The South African Experience: Academic Boycotts against Apartheid South Africa. - Speaker: Zachie Achmat

5 September - The University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) current Academic boycott of Israel. Speakers: Prof. Steven Friedman and Assoc. Prof. Ran Greenstein

12 September - How the UCT academic boycott of Israel benefits the Palestinian Struggle. - Speakers: Kwara Kekana and Prof. Farid Esack.

Andrew Nash is a recently retired professor of politics at UCT. Nurina Ally is the Executive Director of the Equal Education Law Centre whose website describes her as “committed activist, with a passion for using law to advance social justice.” Zachie Achmat was a founder of the Treatment Action Campaign and the Open Shuhada Street South Africa (OSS), an NGO whose mission is “To end the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian Territories and to promote an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based in international law and equal rights for all.” OSS supports Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions (BDS) more of which below.

Steven Friedman is an academic of UJ and political commentator who was instrumental in the decision by UJ to impose a boycott on the Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Ran Greenstein is an associate professor in the department of sociology at Wits University and in 2011 was one of those responsible for UJ’s boycott.

Kwara Kekana is the National Spokesman for Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions South Africa (BDS). Farid Esack is an academic of UJ and a board member of BDS.

There are no participants who oppose an academic boycott, so it is probably more accurate to call it a “series of workshops to promote the institution of an academic boycott against Israeli academia”.

Israel Academic Boycott is a program of the UCT Palestinian Solidarity Forum (UCT-PSF) of which Nash and Ally are organisers. The UCT-PSF was founded in 2010 and has promoted an academic boycott of Israeli academia on and off since then.

This issue will have to be pronounced upon by UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC). The AFC aims to protect and promote free speech at UCT. It has been difficult to ascertain who the members of the current AFC are, but it is understood that some members of the AFC support UCT-PSF’s call for a boycott.

In 2016 the AFC invited Flemming Rose, the Danish editor of the “Prophet Mohammed Cartoons” fame, to give its annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom. Rose is a vigorous proponent of free speech. Dr. Max Price, UCT’s Vice-Chancellor, cancelled the lecture for reasons which extraordinarily included the protection of freedom of speech.

This year the TB Davie lecture has just been given by Ugandan Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s speciality is decolonisation. The academic was at UCT from 1996 until 1999. His tenure culminated when he was suspended and eventually resigned with Mamdani called UCT’s Centre for African Studies “a new home for Bantu education”. Mamdani said he decided to return to UCT “Because Rhodes Fell”. Mamdani is a supporter of boycotting Israel and endorsed UJ’s boycott of Ben-Gurion University.

The call for an academic boycott is in itself an exercise in free speech. However a university which decides to boycott academics and their institutions thereby intends to destroy the free speech of others. The AFC is expected to deal with and pronounce upon the proposed boycott on 31 August 2017.

The calls from pro-Palestinian groups and certain academics to boycott Israeli academics and academic institutions have been a feature of campus life, particularly in Britain and America, for nearly 15 years. They protest against Israel as being an exploitative, colonialist and apartheid state.

Since 2005 the movement has been spearheaded by BDS to increase economic and political pressure on Israel "various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law". The principle is to isolate and weaken it so as to force it to withdraw from the West Bank.

Occupations historically end either through victory in war or by negotiation. Few believe that a military victory can be gained over the Israelis. So withdrawal by an Israel weakened through international opprobrium is the preferred BDS option.

The stated goals of BDS are, however, greater than withdrawal. According to Wikipedia they include the end of Israel's occupation and “settler colonization” of Palestinian land and the Golan Heights, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and acknowledgement of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

For historical yet inexplicable reasons Palestinian refugees are the only refugees who have had a dedicated United Nations (UN) refugee agency look after them. Every other refugee on earth is looked after by the UN High Commission for Refugees. The Palestinians are also the only refugees in the world whose descendants of the original 700,000-odd refugees are classified as refugees ad infinitum. This means that the current 7 million “refugees” would out-number the Jews and thus the Jewish state would cease to exist.

Arguments against a boycott include:

1. Alan M. Dershowitz, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Law School believes that anti-Israel organisations reject the core principles of “worst first”. Whatever criticisms may justifiably be levelled at Israel, Israel’s minorities enjoy more rights and a level of democracy unparalleled in the Middle East.

2. Israel was and remains recognised by the UN. Objectively considered Israel’s conduct is no worse and certainly better than many other countries, including those who oppose Israel. The call for Israel’s isolation over any other country is curious.

3. Arabs from Israel and Palestine make up approximately 15% of the Israeli university population. Israel’s top technological university, the Technion, has an Arab student percentage at 20% due to the narrowing of educational gaps.

4. Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. A “one state” solution would result in the demise of the world’s only Jewish state. The ramifications of this would be stark.

5. Muslim states have until recently refused to recognise Israel’s existence. This is not only premised on the Palestinian situation. It pre-dates it. It is premised on anti-Semitism based on a refusal to regard Jews as forming a majority anywhere in the Middle East. The anti-Semitic campaigns conducted in the Muslim world are straight from the Nazi playbook.

6. The occupation of the West Bank, which in fact most Israelis and Jews would like to see end, came about when Israel conquered the area from the Jordanians in 1967 during a war waged against Israel by Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. So while its continuation is contentious its origins are not.

7. BDS’s narrative is that the Palestinians bear no responsibility for the resolution of the problem. As such no negotiation is warranted. That previous negotiations have failed has never been the basis for rejecting negotiations as an option. The debate over who was responsible for those failures is varied and complex. Judging by the sweeping nature of BDS’s goals it’s because a two-state solution is not the one BDS and its supporters want.

8. Negotiations will require concessions by both sides. The Palestinians will have to concede recognition of the right of Israel to exist and to have its security concerns addressed. BDS encourages the Palestinians to reject compromise.

9. There is considerable debate about the scope, efficacy, and morality of the BDS movement. Opponents argue that choosing to boycott Israeli academia amounts to tarring the institutions with the brush of the Israeli government without much evidence to support the view that Israeli academics support or agree with the policies or actions of the Israeli government.

It is a problem when you use your precious freedom to contest your ideas in the public space to deny your opponents of the right to contest their ideas.

South Africa’s position on the Israel/Palestine issue should be about the contestation of ideas. Pro-Palestinian activists should want more spaces and platforms to be available for the contestation of ideas, not less. Israel has more technology that would be of benefit to this country than most and yet it is not available to us because the government has shut down the debate.

The debate cannot be shut down because one side may be worried that if the debate is contested openly the wider audience may come to different conclusions to its own.

What is wrong in the West Bank and Gaza is not simply the fault of the “colonial occupier”. And the media’s role in turning the aggressors of Hamas into victims of an Israeli response bears considerably more consideration than has been given until now.

A boycott will ensure that responsibility for resolving the occupation Israel’s alone. That cannot work.

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica. 

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