University of Cape Town debates academic and cultural boycotts of Israel

Activists say action would lead to cut in funding, underprivileged students suffering the consequences.

Demonstrators march through the streets of Cape Town against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict August 9, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Demonstrators march through the streets of Cape Town against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict August 9, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Africa’s top university, the University of Cape Town, is debating a proposed academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
The proposal was put forward by the Palestine Solidarity Forum, which has called on UCT to implement an academic boycott of Israeli universities. “This academic boycott would require that UCT reject forming any institutional ties with Israeli universities,” the PSF wrote.
“The rationale for this call is clear – Palestinian human rights are violated by Israel on a daily basis with the direct and indirect support from Israeli universities... By implementing an academic boycott, UCT takes a principled position in the defense of human rights and academic freedom,” The group claimed.
The matter has been raised for discussion at the UCT Academic Freedom Committee. The committee, however, is only able to make recommendations to the university for consideration by the UCT senate and council, it does not have the authority to make binding decisions on behalf of the school.
Klaas Mokgomole, a member of Africans for Peace, said the idea of boycott is taking the focus away from real issues.
“First of all, we have very important issues in South Africa that are burning and need urgent attention,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“For example, we are busy fighting for free, quality and decolonized education. That is why we had the ‘#FeesMustFall’ movement in the past two years. We need the government to work together with institutions of higher learning. The boycott is trying to sway the black students’ focus from real issues that affect them in South Africa.
“This will lead to a cut in funding, and more and more black and underprivileged students will suffer the consequence. It is actually very selfish to suggest such a boycott. This kind of a suggested motion is very anti-black and it cannot be allowed to carry on,” Mokgomole said.
“Africans for Peace is about bring two parties to the table and have a dialogue. We need to be promoting peace in the Middle East, not boycotts. Boycotts have not helped so far, however, promoting dialogue will help,” he stressed.
Asked how a boycott might affect relations between Israel and South Africa, Mokgomole said ties between the two countries “are very strong.”
“However, a boycott like these would lead to unnecessary consequences, and as a result, the South African black community will suffer at the end,” he said.
Concerned UCT students, parents and alumni have banded together to create an online petition that, once it reaches 2500 signatures, will be handed over to UCT management, which includes the university’s senate and council.
 “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,” said the group, which calls itself Concerned Citizens for Academic Freedom at UCT.
“Research, teaching and scholarship flourish through robust exchange of ideas across borders and among institutions in different parts of the world, including the Middle East. The true essence of a university is to foster dialogue and develop solutions to problems without regard to political, racial and cultural differences. UCT has always shown these qualities, leading us to celebrate our association with UCT,” it said.
“Student groups are well-known for their efforts to isolate the Jewish state’s universities, students and academics. And all too often, student groups like the Palestine Solidarity Forum at UCT do not make the profound distinction between antisemitism, anti-Zionism and criticism of the policies of a particular Israeli government.
“It is these blurred lines and misunderstandings that create a negative impact on campus for Jewish students, making them one of the most targeted minority groups at university,” the group added.
In an interview with South African Jewish Report, UCT vice-chancellor Max Price, who himself is Jewish, said his “personal position is that there should never be an academic boycott anywhere, and this coincides with the position of UCT up till now.”
“Things can change depending on the debate. We should be concerned about academic freedom globally. This year we have been called upon to re-think our position as a university,” he said.
He made it clear that the debate was an institutional issue, not a personal one.
Earlier this month, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) said they were working closely with the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS). Representatives of SAUJS will make a presentation this week to the AFC and have been in communication with university management, and other concerned organizations. 
“We are concerned both about the nature of this campaign by anti-Israel groups on Campus, as well as the antisemitic rhetoric that may evolve from this debate and its implications for Jewish students who support the values of academic freedom.
“The SAJBD and SAZF unequivocally reject academic boycotts, whether aimed at Israeli institutions or those of any other country. Such initiatives are discriminatory and inconsistent with universal academic standards,” the organizations said in a statement.
Both the SAUJS and the Palestine Solidarity Forum have made lengthy presentations to the Academic Freedom Committee, which the body is still considering.