Which option will South African academics choose while considering a boycott of Ben-Gurion University: the example of Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela or that of Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu?
In 1997, I was sent to the University of Cape Town by Ben-Gurion University of
the Negev to be the master of ceremonies when the president of South Africa,
Nelson Mandela, received an honorary doctorate from BGU. Representatives from 40
universities from South Africa and neighboring countries marched in the academic
Being Israeli and Jewish was a welcome and appreciated
calling card at that the event, and at others over the years. As Mandela
eloquently declared in his acceptance speech: “In Ben-Gurion University of the
Negev we have a center of excellence which represents the best in the traditions
of the Jewish people: a sense of mission, internationalism and
This May, I was again in South Africa, but this time at a
special hearing before the senate of the University of Johannesburg to help
respond to a petition calling for a boycott of BGU, and by implication all
Israeli universities. The petition charged BGU with violating the academic
freedom of a colleague who urged a boycott of Israeli universities. It also
claimed human rights violations in the theft of Palestinian water resources.
This allegation in particular was used to support the demand that their
university abrogate a signed and functioning agreement with BGU for joint
research on water use issues. Both charges echoed the now familiar claim that
Israel is an apartheid state.
The first two complaints were readily
answered on factual grounds. BGU has a record of supporting academic freedom and
a well-documented history of research to improve water quality for all the
inhabitants of the region.
We further cautioned that South Africans
should beware of having their experience with apartheid hijacked for the sake of
polemical advantage in advancing the political causes of others, just as Jews
guard against indiscriminate applications of “Holocaust” or
Yet the movement to discredit Israel by comparing it to
apartheid South Africa is well orchestrated and has its own momentum.
is hard to gauge what the final result will be. A subcommittee was to have
reported back to the senate today, September 29. The vice chancellor and the
university administration were then to deliberate and render final judgment in a
month or so. We hope that common sense and courage will guide them in their
decision and that they will dismiss the absurd arguments of the detractors and
vote for cooperation and collaboration.
YET JUST last week, Bishop
Desmond Tutu signed a second petition calling for the suspension of any
relationship with Ben- Gurion University on the grounds that it is the creation
of a criminal state and complicit in its noxious behavior. Even as sanctions
were used to break apartheid in his country, he argues, sanctions should be used
against Israeli universities.
This new petition nowhere mentions the
issue of academic freedom or violations of water rights. A host of other
outrageous charges raised against Ben-Gurion University at the May senate
meeting and, answered at that time, have similarly disappeared. Instead the
second petition makes far more general indictments.
They constitute, in
effect, an accusation against Israeli society as a whole. It is hard to
understand such animus, since it so patently and deliberately rejects both
reason and self-interest.
I have not entirely overcome the frustration
and anger at having to answer baseless and mendacious accusations.
believe it is clear that it is not BGU and Israel who are on trial, but the
academics of South Africa.
Israel is a world leader in arid-zone and
water research as in much else.
Literally scores of countries have
collaborative agreements with Israeli institutions.
academics from around the world come to Israel, from the Palestinian Authority
and Jordan, from across Africa and Europe, the US and Russia.
University of Johannesburg cannot match that record of achievement and
engagement. The much maligned water project will help produce pure water crucial
for Johannesburg. To deny fellow citizens such a benefit on the pretense that
this action demonstrates concern for the human rights of Palestinians and
furthers their cause is a cynical effort to appear self-righteous in the absence
of any serious commitment. It cannot compare with and should not be allowed to
overshadow the agricultural, technical and health collaborations and assistance
BGU has offered over the years to UJ and other South African universities as
well as its Arab and Palestinian neighbors.
The sad irony is that the
benefits of the UJ agreement are marginal for BGU.
There are many other
suitors eager for cooperative arrangements. There is one benefit, though, that
Mandela well expressed in welcoming an association with BGU. It is in the
opportunity for service that is deeply embedded in the Zionist ethic that
animates Israeli scholarship as a whole. Despite the indignity of confronting
this assault on the university and the country, BGU has remained ready to reach
out and share with colleagues everywhere who value what the application of good
science can do for mankind.
The writer is professor emeritus of history
and formerly dean of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion
University. He is currently director of the Schusterman Center for Israel
Studies at Brandeis University.