Last week the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement celebrated its first
major success in securing an academic boycott against an Israeli institution,
with the University of Johannesburg voting to sever ties with Ben-Gurion
Yet while the initiative was driven by academics serving deep
political agendas, in contradiction with the desire of their own student
population, the real blame for this fiasco lies with the leaders of BGU, which
during the six months preceding the 72-45 vote in favor of boycott legitimized
the BDS campaign.
It beggars belief that a university among the world’s
top 300 was left literally begging a poor academic institution – ranked outside
the world’s top 2,000 – to retain links which served only to benefit
A glance at the letters sent by the political leadership of BGU to UJ
is enough to leave one feeling nauseated.
In response to a demand from
the Senate of UJ that no research related to the UJ partnership in any way
benefit the Israeli military or be used for “abuse of human rights,” BGU decided
to “support the UJ Executive in meeting its conditions.”
In other words
it, by omission, accepted the plausibility of Israeli human rights abuses, and
agreed to refrain from any activity with military connotations.
be no doubt that BGU had all the facts on its side; it rightfully argued that an
academic boycott of an independent institution is counterproductive to a
peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was equally correct
in noting that UJ maintains links with dictatorships such as Belarus while
singling out a democracy for censure, and that the current partnership does
indeed provide increased academic opportunities for UJ students while supplying
clean drinking water for ordinary South Africans.
It wouldn’t have taken
a master of political science to have seen that this was nothing more than a
show trial in a kangaroo court. It is startling how the leadership of BGU could
not have seen what every Jewish student in South Africa surely could, and chose
to engage wholeheartedly in a perverted process while offering it enormous
From the outset, once UJ decided to hold a vote on whether to
retain its links with BGU, it should have been made clear that if it wished to
deprive its students of the opportunity to learn revolutionary techniques of
supplying clean water to a nation where one in six children die as a result of
drinking contaminated drinking water, it could do so.
Instead, BGU was
bullied until the proud “academics” of UJ decided to confirm what for everyone
apart from BGU was an obvious inevitability. This whole process was a farce,
devoid of anything even remotely resembling academic debate, and BGU’s decision
to engage in the process is frankly embarrassing.
Ultimately all BGU
managed to do by offering concession after concession – which included allowing
UJ to review its operations for contributions to human rights abuses – was to
legitimize not only the debate with UJ, but the entire BDS movement.
is now being reported as an “historic moment for the movement to boycott Israel”
could have easily been “BGU ends partnership with UJ over unfair bias,” or even
“BGU ends partnership with UJ over its ties to institutions in the Belarus
IT IS no revelation that in Israel we have become far too
good at apologizing when we have nothing to apologize for, and BGU managed to
highlight this as never before in this latest effort. When there is an argument
to be won, let’s win it, but engaging in this debate was always just about as
effective as turning up at an Iranian Holocaust Conference. Ultimately it
is Jewish students in South Africa that have to go back to university under
morale-sapping conditions as BGU failed to see that it was engaging in a process
with a pre-determined verdict.
The South African Union of Jewish Students
was the only communal Jewish organization urging a more aggressive stance rather
than capitulating to the progressively harsher concessions the Executive of UJ
demanded BGU make to save the partnership.
Ultimately this startling
loss, the effects of which will be felt far from South Africa, and has resulted
in priceless coverage for the BDS movement, was fought for nothing. Six months
ago BGU could have withdrawn this partnership agreement and given it to a
university in a country that does appreciate the assistance it would be willing
to offer, and this BDS campaign would have gone unnoticed.
University proudly noted its “moral responsibility” to protect its partnership
with UJ in order to “not abandon” its partners there.
I would remind the
leadership of BGU of its “moral responsibility” to every other Israeli academic
institution, Jewish students worldwide who defend Israel against academic
boycotts, and indeed the State of Israel itself, to all of whom this affair has
The writer is chairman of the World Union of Jewish
Students, the international umbrella organization for 48 national Jewish student