University of Cape Town fails Palestine, embraces Israel
In a scandal of the highest caliber, the senate of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa was last month practically bullied into reversing an earlier decision that called for an academic boycott of Israel. While the story is relevant in South Africa’s political and academic contexts, it also exemplifies the nature of a brewing war between supporters of Palestinian rights and Israeli interests worldwide.
Calls for South African universities to join the academic boycott of apartheid Israel were first answered by the University of Johannesburg in 2010. Decisive action taken by that university’s faculty senate sent a clear message to Israel’s academic institutions that South African academics would no longer accommodate Israeli crimes, including apartheid, in the name of scientific cooperation or “academic freedom.”
The severing of ties between the University of Johannesburg and Israel’s Ben-Gurion University sounded an alarm among Israel’s supporters in South Africa, under the leadership of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), which fanned out throughout the country warning of the supposed rise of anti-Semitism.
However, the successful campaign in Johannesburg inspired other student groups across the country to carry on with their mission of holding the Israeli state accountable for its racism, apartheid and military occupation. In August 2012, the student representative council at the University of the Witwatersrand adopted a resolution that called for a full academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Support for Palestine continued. In response to the deadly Israeli war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, more than 300 members of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, including Vice-Chancellor Dr. Sizwe Maisel, condemned Israeli violence targeting the besieged Strip. The same month, the UCT student representative council began its campaign aimed at cutting ties between the university and Israel in response to a memorandum introduced by the Palestine Solidarity Forum. The students courageously and “unconditionally” declared Israel an apartheid state, calling for the boycott of Israeli products and demanding the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to the country.
UCT students have so much to be proud of, as their efforts — combined with a massive grassroots movement throughout South Africa — did, in fact, push the government to rethink its ties with Israel. In May 2018, Pretoria recalled its ambassador to Israel to protest the Israeli army’s killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza.
And the UCT students’ efforts paid dividends in March this year, when the university’s senate passed a resolution that called on the university not to engage with any Israeli academic institutions, whether those operating within the Occupied Territories or any others that contribute to Israel’s gross human rights violations in Palestine.
While the UCT decision is a regrettable setback, it will most likely invigorate pro-Palestine campaigners in South Africa.
Considering the importance of UCT as Africa’s top academic institution and the democratic nature of its senate, which includes 363 representatives, the pro-Palestine resolution was too much for Israel’s supporters to bear. A few days after the senate vote, the SAJBD and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the UCT’s governing council to reject the resolution. At the time, an influential SAJBD member told right-wing Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post that the senate had “shamefully caved in to pressure from radical anti-Israel lobby groups.”
Wary of outside pressures, yet careful not to lose all credibility, the 30-member UCT council — which includes representatives who have been “elected by donors” — attempted to exert pressure on the senate without rejecting the resolution outright. So, at the end of March, the council sent the resolution back for the senate to “reconsider.”
A battle of wills ensued. This involved, on the one hand, student groups and their supporters in the senate and, on the other, the council and the many Israeli pressure groups, leading among them being the SAJBD and SAZF.
Weighing in on the matter, 65 distinguished Jewish scholars signed a letter addressed to UCT, “to preserve (its previous) resolution and safeguard the university’s academic freedom and autonomy.” The March resolution, the letter argued, “establishes UCT as an adherent to international law and affirms the university as a partner in the struggle for human rights in Israel/Palestine.”
The following passage from the letter highlighted the ugly nature of the opposition that the resolution had inspired, which culminated in last month’s unfortunate decision by the senate to strike down its previous commitment: “Over the past six months, opponents of this resolution have used back-door fearmongering about the withdrawal of private funding to cripple the institution, thereby undermining the academic freedom of the UCT senate members.”
Sadly, even such a candid and passionate call failed to dissuade the council from pressuring the senate, which led to the reversal of the March resolution. Israel’s friends in South Africa are now gloating, welcoming the badly needed respite from Tel Aviv’s political misfortunes in the country.
While the UCT decision is a regrettable setback, it will most likely invigorate pro-Palestine campaigners in South Africa so that they may take the academic boycott movement to every institution in the country that engages with and validates human rights violators in Israel, Palestine or anywhere else in the world.
I visited South Africa for the third time in September. My speaking tour in that beautiful and inspiring country took me to several universities, government and civil society offices, and other intellectual and community forums. In all of my travels, I have never experienced such harmony between politicians, academics and civil society activists regarding the rights of the Palestinian people and the insistence on holding Israeli criminals to account
The boycott of Israel, as championed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is hardly on the decline, as the recent decision by the US Brown University committee on corporate responsibility to divest from Israeli companies amply demonstrates. The UCT has a duty to rethink its priorities and choose between its commitment to those “elected by donors” and the democratic ideals as championed by post-apartheid South Africa.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine studies from the University of Exeter. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud