Africa's top university considers academic boycott of Israeli institutions

On Wednesday, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) slammed the UCT Senate resolution.

Protestors call for the severing of diplomatic ties with Israel during a march in Cape Town, South Africa. (photo credit: MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS)
Protestors call for the severing of diplomatic ties with Israel during a march in Cape Town, South Africa.
(photo credit: MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS)
Africa's top university, the University of Cape Town (UCT), is mulling an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
The university's Senate, which is predominantly made up of academics, voted in favor of an motion to academically boycott Israeli institutions. The decision was passed in the Senate by a small margin of  62 for, 43 against, with 10 abstentions.
According to a university statement, "the University of Cape Town Senate took a resolution in favor of a proposal for UCT to not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.
"The Senate resolution, which passed at a meeting held on 15 March 2019, will be considered by the university Council when it next meets on 30 March 2019," it said.
The Council is the university's top governing body and decisions made there are ratified into university policy.
On Wednesday, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) slammed the UCT Senate resolution and called on the Council reject the motion in its upcoming meeting.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, SAJBD Cape Council chairman Rael Kaimowitz and SAZF Cape chairman Rowan Polovin said the Senate had "shamefully caved in to pressure from radical anti-Israel lobby groups by adopting a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Such a resolution should never even have come up for debate in such a forum in the first place, let alone passed."
They pointed out that by voting in favor of boycotting its counterparts, "the UCT Senate has betrayed the university’s long and honourable record of upholding the values of academic freedom, even during the difficult years of the apartheid era.
"At leading universities throughout the world, attempts to institute academic boycotts against Israel have been consistently rejected. Why would UCT decide to do otherwise?" Polovin and Kaimowitz questioned.
The Jewish leaders explained that this move had "potentially serious consequences" for the university "should the Senate’s decision be endorsed by the university Council at its meeting on 30 March," adding that this needs to be "carefully considered."
"The reputational damage that UCT will most likely suffer, along with possible threats to external funding, could have a disastrous impact on its ability to maintain its standing as Africa’s foremost institution of higher learning," Kaimowitz and Polovin said. "In addition to flouting the core values of academic freedom, the Senate decision is also grossly discriminatory.
"Why should UCT have chosen to single out Israeli universities when there are territorial disputes around the world and countries with appalling human rights records about whom nothing is said?" the leaders told the Post. "It would be far more fitting for UCT to adhere to the principles of academic freedom instead of pandering to those with an extreme anti-Israel agenda who are more interested in vilification than resolution to a complex geopolitical conflict."
Polovin and Kaimowitz pointed out that there are scores of countries "where grave infringements of human rights are genuinely taking place but which no academic boycott has been considered."
According to the Jewish leaders, a boycott measure of any form against any country "is by nature contrary to the ideals of the university as a space for the free expression and exchange of ideas," adding that this is also discriminatory towards academics and students who have a national, religious or spiritual connection to that country.
"Our universities belong to all of us. We should not allow them to be hijacked by special interest lobbies for purposes of conducting one-sided and immoral political vendettas," the added.
The process began in late 2017, The Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) put forward the motion recommendations by the Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF), which called on UCT to implement an academic boycott of Israeli universities. An advisor of the PSF 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 SEC 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 members of the AFC, and that the SEC’s wording is “prejudicial” to the AFC’s recommendation. A brief discussion was held in which the AFC and SEC resolved to discuss why the latter had come to this recommendation.
In September last year, the item was placed on the agenda for the 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 PSF 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 as 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 was included.
The South African Union of Jewish Students who had presented arguments against the AFC's boycott proposal over the last 18 months not contacted to provide information on the matter.
On this, Polovin and Kaimowitz said that "the boycott campaign at UCT has further been characterized by gross procedural unfairness against SAUJS, which has strenuously campaigned against the initiative.
"Time and again, SAUJS has found itself side-lined, denied an equal opportunity to present its case, left in the dark about crucial upcoming developments and in general placed at a serious disadvantage vis-à-vis the boycott lobby," the Jewish leaders said. "We urge the UCT Council to reject the emotive, one-sided political posturing of the boycott lobby and instead reaffirm UCT’s long-standing commitment to the values of academic freedom."
Concerned UCT students, parents and alumni have banded together to create an online petition that has reached some 4500 signatures, and 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.