Thousands call on Africa's top university not to boycott Israel

The group, which calls itself Concerned Citizens for Academic Freedom at UCT started a recent petition entitling it: Protect Academic Freedom at the University of Cape Town.

Protesters call for diplomatic ties between South Africa and Israel to be severed during a 2018 demonstration in Cape Town, South Africa. (photo credit: MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS)
Protesters call for diplomatic ties between South Africa and Israel to be severed during a 2018 demonstration in Cape Town, South Africa.
(photo credit: MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS)
Alumni, parents and students of Africa’s top university, the University of Cape Town (UCT), have banded together in a bid to halt any attempt of an academic boycott of Israel.
The group, which calls itself Concerned Citizens for Academic Freedom at UCT, started a recent petition called, “Protect Academic Freedom at the University of Cape Town.”
Almost 25,000 people have signed the petition, which calls “upon UCT’s management and leadership to stand against this campaign. We believe that the implementation of a wholesale academic boycott against Israel violates the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, guaranteed in Section 16 of the South African Constitution and which are fundamental to the undertaking of education and research.”
This comes as the university’s senate is expected to meet again on Friday to clarify and discuss certain issues that its council, the ruling body of the university, have requested following its decision not to institute an academic boycott of Israel.
In March, the university’s senate, which is predominantly made up of academics, voted in favor of a motion to academically boycott Israeli institutions. The decision was passed in the senate by a small margin of 62 in favor, 43 against, and 10 abstentions.
However, Royston Pillay, the registrar and secretary to the council, said that UCT “did not adopt this resolution of the senate” because “it was the view of the council that a number of issues required clarification.”
Once the clarifications are made, the senate resolution on whether or not to institute a boycott will go back to council to be decided.
The UCT alumni explained in the petition’s description that “as administrators, any decision to boycott Israeli universities fans the flames of anti-Jewish hostility on campus and it should recognize that the primary source of the harassment, intimidation, suppression of speech and ethnic discrimination of Jewish students originate from the pejorative activities of these student groups who do not make this differentiation.”
“For years, UCT has enjoyed the reputation of being an inclusive environment for students from all cultural and racial backgrounds,” it said. “While there is no greater benefit to one’s intellectual and social development than ideological diversity, it is crucial for the concept of tolerance that we speak out against what we disagree, with limits. The concept of tolerance implies that we refrain from using violence, intimidation, threats and bans to silence our opponents.”
In March, Pillay said in a statement that the UCT council resolved separately to reaffirm its commitment to supporting the rights and freedom of all people as universally recognized under international law; to condemn any acts that violate those rights and freedoms; to condemn the atrocities and human rights violations perpetrated in the occupied Palestinian territories and elsewhere in the world; and to call on all academics and academic institutions to support the resolution.
THE PROCESS began in late 2017, when the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) put forward the motion recommendations by the Palestine Solidarity Forum, which called on UCT to implement an academic boycott of Israeli universities. An adviser of the forum sits on the AFC.
The AFC issued a recommendation to the university’s senate executive committee in late 2017, calling for an academic boycott of Israeli academia, but carefully wording it as a “limiting measure,” stating: “UCT will not enter into any formal relationships with academic institutions operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
However, it was rejected by the senate executive committee on the basis that it this would be an “inconsistent application” – meaning why only Israel and not other countries that may be accused of violating human rights as well.
The matter was then passed onto the senate for further discussion, where the AFC claimed that there was a conspiracy against its members, and that the senate executive committee’s wording was “prejudicial” to the AFC’s recommendation. A brief discussion was held in which the AFC and senate executive committee resolved to discuss why the latter had come to this recommendation.
In September last year, the item was placed on the agenda for a senate meeting as a motion for a full academic boycott of Israeli institutions as per the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel guidelines.
The recommendation was voted upon in senate upon in November and did not go through as a clear majority – 73 against, 37 for, and 12 abstentions – were against an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.
The Palestine Solidarity Forum and the AFC indicated after this vote that they were unhappy that the AFC’s recommendation of a “limiting measure” was not discussed and insisted on it being placed on the next senate agenda.
The AFC’s recommendation was then placed on the senate’s agenda for March 15. The SEC’s recommendation was not placed on the agenda, but extra material was added to the appendix, which supported the AFC motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions. No alternate arguments or documentation against the recommendation were included. The South African Union of Jewish Students, who had presented arguments against the AFC’s boycott proposal over the last 18 months, was not contacted to provide information on the matter.