No need to boycott the University of Johannesburg
The 400 so-called academics who backed the University of Johannesburg's boycott of Ben-Gurion University in Israel have demonstrated their own prejudice and established the irrelevance of UJ as an institution. While brutal Arab regimes and Iranian theocrats cling to power by imprisoning and murdering students and professors (among others), these supposed intellectual leaders are targeting Israel - and only Israel - for isolation.
A few years ago, when it was (more) fashionable among Western elites to believe Israel was the cause of all the troubles of the Middle East, the radical academic left tried to instigate academic boycotts of Israel worldwide.
In Britain, the Association of University Teachers briefly boycotted the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University in April 2005, before rescinding those boycotts a month later. In the USA, home to the world's leading universities, the boycott effort was flatly rejected in 2007, with 286 university presidents and 32 Nobel laureates signing counter-petitions condemning boycotts of Israeli universities.
Even Noam Chomsky, whose opposition to Israel is legendary, opposes academic boycotts. Those few obsessives who still push for boycotts of Israeli universities are a radical, marginal, and discredited bunch, regarded no more highly than AIDS denialists.
The organizers of the UJ boycott effort are now congratulating each other, hoping that they will inspire others around the world to follow their example. In reality, they have placed their own faculty and students at risk of isolation and rebuke by foreign scholars and academic institutions--even those critical of Israeli policies--that consider academic boycotts to be counterproductive and fundamental violations of academic freedom.
There is another risk for the boycotters: few in Israel--even at Ben-Gurion University--are likely to notice or lament the loss of UJ as an academic partner. In the past decade, five Israeli academics won Nobel prizes for their academic research, four of whom live and work in Israel. South Africa's sole research winner, Sydney Brenner, did his work overseas. The world won't miss UJ much, but cannot afford to lose Israeli research.
The very creation of the University of Johannesburg is a tale of South Africa's academic decline. The institution was formed from Rand Afrikaans University, Vista University, and Technikon Witwatersrand in 2005, ostensibly to build a higher international profile for South African academia. Behind the merger lay bitter resentment by South Africa's new political elite against the success and flourishing of Rand Afrikaans University (RAU).
In the post-apartheid years, RAU gained in reputation and stature because competing institutions like the University of the Witwatersrand ("Wits") lowered their standards for student admission and faculty promotion. Though it was impossible for a university to overturn, in a few years, the results of decades of deliberate miseducation of black people by the former white minority government, Wits succumbed to political pressure.
RAU managed to resist that pressure because it retained the vestiges of an Afrikaans-language curriculum. Like other Afrikaans institutions, it attracted less interest from black students and faculty, partly because of understandable resentment about the way the language was manipulated by the apartheid regime. Yet English-speaking students from racial minorities began flocking to RAU to avoid the tarnished Wits brand.
The simmering resentment of RAU's success was present throughout the debates over the University of Johannesburg merger. Eventually, the advocates of "transformation" won, ending RAU's independence. They have since continued their campaign for political conformity at other South African universities that had managed to maintain world-class standards despite the political, social and financial challenges they face.
The University of Johannesburg is a monument to the sort of political sabotage of the South African academy that should have ended with apartheid. Its foolish effort to lead a boycott of Israel is an attempt to remain relevant to the world in the absence of notable intellectual achievement. A counter-boycott, while appropriate, may be unnecessary; UJ has marginalized itself. Intellectually, and politically, the world has long since moved on.
Joel B. Pollak holds an M.A. degree in Jewish Studies from the University of Cape Town. He practices law in the United States.
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