South Africa’s Premier University – UCT- Rejects Call To Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions
By David E. Kaplan
Common sense prevailed.
Deciding in its own best interest, the University of Cape Town (UCT) decisively rejected this November; the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions and how does the pro-Palestinian lobby in South Africa react?
They blame “wealthy donors” and “Zionists”
With this predictable antisemitic response to a solid, sound and sensible campaign at preserving UCT’s academic stature as the premier university in Africa, is it not time for South Africans to ditch BDS and its cohorts who are undermining the future of South Africa and many of its esteemed institutions in pursuit of its narrow nefarious agenda?
This was born out by revelations on the dirty tricks employed by BDS against Jewish students in South Africa by Wendy Kahn, National Director of the SAJBOD. Warning in a 21 November article of the disastrous ramifications to UCT of a boycott of Israel, she reveals that “The BDS on campus have impersonated SAUJS students to fool people into thinking that they represent an official Jewish body.”
Thankfully, at the 11th hour – after three years of wrangling – disaster was averted not so much for Israel academic intuitions that enjoy enriching collaborative partnerships with the world’s most prestigious universities; but more so for the reputation and sustainability of UCT. May the decision further herald a warning to the would-be-hijackers of South Africa’s future – “beat it”.
Most endearing and might prove enduring was how alumni from across the globe came out of the woodwork and energized for a common cause – to defeat the resolution that would have in the words again of Kahn, “trampled the bedrock values of academic freedom upon which every credible institution of higher learning is necessarily founded.”
Galvanized From Around The Globe
It is not too often, apart from the infrequent class reunions, alumni from around the world really connect with each other or their Alma Mater.
This was different.
The proposed resolution was a trigger that awakened generations of UCT students from homes across all the continents.
No sooner had the South African Zionist Federation and the SAJBOD appealed for alumni to petition against the proposed UCT academic boycott, former students, reminded of their activism against Apartheid, got into action signing petitions, encouraging others to do so, writing articles and sharing their open letters to the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Registrar, Senate and Governing Council.
One of the multitude of letters written is this one from a 1969 science student living in Israel.
“As a proud graduate of UCT (1969 B.Sc. Geology), a diligent member of the UCT Students Representative Council (1963), a committed member of the UCT Academic Freedom Committee and a former leader in the UCT Students Jewish Association, it is with a deep sense of outrage, shame and disgust to know that my former alma mater is planning to implement an academic boycott of Israel.
I have lived, studied and worked in the State of Israel since 1970 and, while no country can objectively claim to be perfect, I know that this embattled nation to be a true light of democracy, tolerance and freedom to the hostile world around it. The conflict with the Palestinians is a sad reality and one can only hope that the leaders on both sides will find the boldness and resources to reach a political solution which will provide security, economic prosperity and hope for better times to both people.
However, I fail to understand what makes Israel the unique target of UCT’s animus and imprecations to the extent that an academic boycott is being seriously contemplated. Has the distorted incitement of the Palestine Solidarity Forum on the campus become so influential that UCT concedes in bending the knee and implementing this extreme and abhorrent act of boycotting the distinguished centers of Israeli academia?
Has the UCT leadership attained such a moral utopia that it can conclude that only Israel deserves to be punished with an academic boycott for its inability to resolve the two sided conflict with the Palestinians? That this isolated issue is the most ominous in a world of numerous wars, hostilities and enmities that have claimed untold casualties and refugees and caused devastation and ruin is beyond belief?
It appears to me that in recent times UCT has lost its moral mettle in determining what truly constitute academic issues; that it has become prone to acceding to the demands of political groups on the campus whose outlooks and policies are duplicitous and mendacious.
I have no doubt that should UCT decide to impose an academic boycott on Israel, it will be UCT that will be the loser!
This ineffectual and puerile act will diminish the reputation of one of Africa’s leading universities in the eyes of western academia – after all, caving in under pressure is not considered a valiant deed. Israeli universities and colleges will continue to produce potential Nobel Prize winners and leaders in science, technology, IT, agriculture, medicine, aero-space and you-name-it!
Unfortunately the government of South Africa has decided to reduce its diplomatic representation in Israel. To all practical purposes this does not affect Israel in the least.
It is with no pleasure that I can attribute this same remark to the dynamic academia of Israel, should UCT implement an academic boycott of Israel.
For what it is worth, my pride and esteem that I feel to my alma mater, will sadly dissolve.
In my student days, I was in the front ranks of those struggling for the independence and autonomy of UCT as an academic institution, whose portals were to be opened to all students based on academic ability, not on their colour. I never believed that this same university would now implement an academic boycott against a country that struggled against unbelievable odds in achieving its independence and creating edifices of learning which enjoy universal admiration.
I can only hope that rationality and spirit will infuse the declining vitality and strength of UCT’s leaders and that they will treat this attempt for imposing an academic boycott on a brave and successful country, with the contempt it deserves!
I respectfully request that this letter be circulated amongst UCT’s management, lecturers and students.
Your kind acknowledgement is thanked in advance.
It was hard-hitting letters like these that won the day.
The word was out that UCT would find it impossible to defend itself from retaliatory moves that a boycott would likely produce.
As expressed by Prof. David Bernstein of the Scalia Law School at George Mason University:
“Once you endorse an academic boycott yourself, you don’t have any standing when it comes to opposing people who then engage in a boycott of your institution.”
At the vote on Friday 25 November, 68% of the 363 members of the senate opposed the resolution that pro-boycott activists had been pushing since 2017.
“We thank the Senate for standing up to this campaign of hate and asserting the importance of academic freedom over narrow political agendas,” said Rowan Polovin, the National Chairman of the SAZF (South African Zionist Federation). “The academic boycott campaign against Israel was driven by the antisemitic BDS movement and loomed over the University for almost three years. Its goal was to single out and isolate the one and only Jewish state for unfair sanction and discrimination. The campaign consumed a disproportionate amount of airtime at the Academic Freedom Committee, Senate and Council at the expense of more relevant and important issues for UCT. Its repudiation sends a strong message that freedom of academic enquiry without limitation is essential for academic freedom to thrive. Academics, students and faculty at UCT are free to engage with Israeli academia, or that of any country they so choose, without restriction.”
Thankful that UCT can now move forward “with its reputation intact,” Polovin concluded by thanking “all the efforts of those who played a role in this pivotal fight for academic freedom at UCT.”
Director of Public Policy at the SAZF, Benji Shulman expressed that he believed that “this was an important win for the community and its allies. UCT’s repudiation of this resolution shows that South Africans are interested in peace in the Middle East and a positive future of South Africa. It is now time to push on forward and increase constructive engagement between South Africans and Israelis such as our new initiative to promote cooperation between UCT and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, whereby two UCT science students have been offered by the Weizmann Institute of Science, a 3-month research scholarship. This will enrich the research capacity of the next generation of UCT scientists.”
As expected, the Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF) at UCT and BDS are furious. The former spewed “It is a clear indication of the persisting conservatism of UCT and the fact that UCT, and the vice-chancellor in particular, is beholden to its donors and the Zionist lobby,” while BDS spokesman, Bram Hanekom, said his campaign “would continue to call for South African academic institutions to cut ties with the apartheid Israeli state.”
The majority of the UCT Senate view the future differently.
In rejecting the proposal to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the Senate also encouraged faculty “to establish positive academic links with Palestinian academic institutions and individuals, with financial and logistical assistance from the UCT.”
One bad resolution nixed, now its time to be resolute in pursuing constructive academic engagement for a better South Africa, Israel and the Palestinian people.
That’s the way to go. Build bridges; not break them down.