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 procession.

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 inventiveness.”

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 “genocide.”

Yet the movement to discredit Israel by comparing it to apartheid South Africa is well orchestrated and has its own momentum.

It 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.

Yet I 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.

Students and academics from around the world come to Israel, from the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, from across Africa and Europe, the US and Russia.

The 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.

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