OPINION

Israeli universities are complicit in abuse of human rights – UCT PSF

Organisation responds to Zionist criticism of its boycott call

The next term is set to be a particularly important one for the University of Cape Town. As rumours of another round of protests for free education become louder in the corridors and on Plaza, UCT is facing another important decision, but one with a less prominent profile.

UCT’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr Max Price, accepted a memorandum from the Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF) earlier this year, calling on UCT to implement an academic boycott of Israel. Price committed to follow an institutional process to decide on the academic boycott – the Academic Freedom Committee, Senate, and Council all will vote on the proposal in the coming term.

The prospect of the UCT academic boycott of Israel has sent the Zionist community into a frenzy, and rightly so. The UCT academic boycott would place Israeli universities, and the Israeli state, under immense pressure in the international arena, and may very well be a watershed moment in the resistance against Israeli oppression.

However, as expected, the Zionists have resorted to publicising blatant fabrications about the boycott in the media, rather than challenging the boycott in the space where it is to be contested – the university. The Zionists, through their student organisation, South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), have consistently refused to engage on the ground, most notably refusing PSF’s invitation to debate the academic boycott during Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) this year. If the Zionists are only comfortable behind their keyboards, then we will happily dispel all of their myths in the media, as we have done already on the ground.

In 2004, a decisive majority of Palestinian civil society called on the international community to adopt various forms of boycott against apartheid Israel. One of these forms was the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The demand of the academic boycott is that international universities cut all institutional ties with Israeli universities. Various international academic bodies, as well as the University of Johannesburg (UJ), have adopted the academic boycott, none the least the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), which represents the majority of Palestinian academics. The legitimacy and mandate behind this call is very clear.  

An academic boycott is particularly appropriate and effective. It is beyond question that Israel is an oppressive apartheid state. It was founded through ethnic cleansing and mass dispossession – a programme that it continues to this day. This is well established, and has been confirmed by numerous authoritative and reputable organisations and individuals.

Israeli universities are complicit, and directly responsible, for the abuse of human rights. Extensive research has been done, and is still being done, into the ways in which Israeli universities contribute to the violation of Palestinian human rights. These include providing the Israeli army with technology, developing and providing the Israeli army with weapons specifically designed to repress Palestinians, developing ‘ethical’ doctrines to justify the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians, and expanding into the illegally occupied territories, and dispossessing Palestinians of land, in order to build campuses and dormitories.

By adopting the academic boycott, UCT would be taking a principled stand against the human rights abuses committed by Israeli universities, and would effectively be placing pressure on Israeli universities, and ultimately the Israeli state, to stop violating the human rights of Palestinians, while inspiring other universities to take a similar stance.

The international community has condemned the use of violence to advance the Palestinian struggle. The academic boycott presents an effective non-violent strategy to advance the Palestinian struggle. But behold, even the non-violent strategy is condemned (particularly in articles on PoliticsWeb, but by a lot fewer people though). The remaining opponents fall into two categories for the most part. Firstly, the Zionists who are blind to any fault of Israel. They are irretrievably ignorant at best, but in most cases just plainly racist. They have lost all legitimacy since the dismantling of apartheid. And secondly, Zionists who cloak themselves in the rhetoric of outdated liberalism. These Zionists deflect from their support for the apartheid Israeli state by invoking principles like academic freedom to reject the academic boycott rather than admitting that they would prefer to maintain the status quo in Israel and Palestine. Amongst this group are individuals from the Institute of Race Relations.

Though the accusation that the academic boycott violates the principle of academic freedom is disingenuous, it has nonetheless gained some traction amongst those who are genuinely committed to academic freedom. For this reason, exposing the ‘liberal’ Zionists (a contradiction if ever there was one) for their hypocrisy is insufficient. But it is not a problem, because the academic boycott does not in any way violate the principle of academic freedom.

Academic freedom, as a principle, is the right afforded to individual scholars to participate in the international transfer of ideas and thought. The academic boycott targets institutional ties between UCT and Israeli universities such as bilateral contracts between UCT’s central management and the central management of the Israeli university. It does not, however, place any restrictions on the exchange of ideas between academics such as inviting Israeli scholars to give lectures at UCT or attend conferences.

Many of the Zionists even concede that the targeting of institutional ties, as opposed to individual links, does not amount to a violation of academic freedom. However, they argue that a consequence of implementing the academic boycott is that the institution-individual distinction will be blurred and inevitably academic freedom will be violated. We struggle to see how this will occur considering the sharp distinction between the institution and the individual. However, to ensure that it does not, we have included in the proposal that a neutral UCT committee be established to oversee the implementation of the boycott and ensure that the principle of academic freedom is not violated in its implementation.

This thoroughly covers the accusation that the academic boycott violates academic freedom, and those that continue to make the accusation only reveal their own hypocrisy, particularly through their silence on the violation of the academic freedom of Palestinians, whose universities are routinely and arbitrarily bombed and closed, and who face immense obstacles just to attend lectures.

The other main accusation levelled against the academic boycott is that it is anti-Semitic. This is an absolute lie. It is premised on the repugnant conflation of Zionism and Judaism. Though not worthy of response, we point all such accusers to the article by the South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP), who clearly explain why the academic boycott is not anti-Semitic.

Though we have little hope, we encourage all those who have preferred to critique the academic boycott from the safety of their keyboards, to join us on campus for debate and discussion. As much as you may say on the internet and in the media, your absence from campus speaks much louder.