One would have thought that any educational institution in a country like South
Africa, which experienced some of the worst racial and ethnic discrimination of
the past century, would have known better than to implement such policies
itself. But that is precisely what the University of Johannesburg has done with
the decision by its Senate not to renew a research agreement with Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev.
Ostensibly, UJ objects to the policies practiced
by BGU in “aiding and abetting the occupation” but in reality it’s the first
institutional boycott of an Israeli university.
This decision would have
been laughable were it not for the fact that the agreement under discussion
deals with water reclamation – an area that BGU actively explores with
Palestinian and Jordanian partners. If the Israelis and Palestinians are able to
work together, it is truly sad that a third party should
Moreover, during the past few years, BGU been subject to vicious
attacks by another group of boycotters – the Jewish right wing, which has
labelled it an “anti-Zionist” institution based on the views of a handful of
researchers, and called upon its supporters to withhold donations. The UJ
decision plays into the hands of these groups, strengthening their call for
sanctions against those faculty who are critical of Israeli
Obviously, the university is doing something right if it is
being attacked by both the Right and the Left. It probably reflects the very
real freedom of expression on BGU’s campus, which includes people who hold a
variety of political opinions.
There is one critical difference, however,
between South African universities during apartheid and Israeli universities
during the long occupation. All South African universities acquiesced to their
government’s policies, and openly practiced racial discrimination and
segregation. Their faculty either remained silent or quit, ultimately condoning
the South African system.
This contrasts sharply to the political debates
which typify Israeli universities. Their faculty are not afraid to criticize
government polices, or to be at the forefront of political debate.
while this has led to much criticism, they are free to continue their research
without fear of being punished, contrary to what the UJ would have us believe.
Many of these faculty members are involved in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and
research collaboration which UJ would, ostensibly, like to promote.
while there is still much to improve on to reach greater equality, Israeli
universities have Arab faculty and students availing themselves of higher
education, regardless of the conflict. BGU practices outreach to the Beduin
community, with many Beduin studying thanks to the benefit of earmarked
It is not yet enough, but it can in no way be compared to
what happened in South Africa during apartheid. No doubt, South African
universities such as UJ still feel a great deal of guilt for their lack of
activity when it was required.
THERE WILL be readers of this column who
will object to my mentioning the two groups of boycotters – UJ delegitimizers
and the Jewish right wing – in the same breath. But in many senses they are
similar. They both choose to discriminate against scientific advancement on the
basis of political views.
UJ’s decision not to continue with its water
research agreement will have a detrimental effect on tens of thousands of South
Africans who are seeking better access to water in environmental conditions
which are similar to those experienced by Israel, while donors who withdraw
their support from academic programs at Israeli universities are equally guilty
of blocking scientific advancement.
Given the backlash to the UJ
announcement, the university president has already come out with a statement to
the effect that this is not an official boycott, and that the university has no
problem with individual faculty members continuing joint research with
This is the exact opposite of what has happened in the UK, where
attempts by individual faculty – radicalized members of the trade union – to
implement a boycott have been totally rejected by the institutions.
can’t have it both ways. Its decision was an official one, made by the
university Senate, and it therefore represents the position of the institution,
not of its individual faculty members. If, as a result of this decision, it is
subject to donors withdrawing bequests, or the international funding agencies in
the US and EU refusing to fund research at institutions which practice such
discrimination – as is now very likely to happen – it has only itself to
DURING THEIR recent fact-finding mission to BGU, senior members of
UJ were offered the opportunity of facilitating further Israeli-Palestinian
academic collaboration, with an important third-party role, in much the same way
that many European and North American universities do. This proposal was
completely missing from the report they produced when returning to South
They could have made a truly positive contribution to the
region’s problems, and would have assisted like-minded faculty on both sides who
desire to cooperate for scientific and political reasons.
Ben-Gurion University will continue to develop. Its 20,000 students and almost
1,000 teaching and research faculty will continue to push the frontiers of
Its politically aware faculty will continue to take part in the
vibrant debate about the nature of Israeli society.
whether they be anti-Israel activists such as UJ, or the anti-democracy
activists of Im Tirtzu and the right-wing donors, will become forgotten
footnotes of history, remembered only for their attempt to manipulate science
for their own narrow aims.
A plague on both of their discriminatory
houses.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views in this article are his alone.