Borderline Views: A plague on both their houses

The University of Johannesburg’s decision to boycott Ben-Gurion University plays straight into the hands of right-wing groups.

Ben Gurion UNiversity 58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ben Gurion UNiversity 58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One would have thought that any educational institution in a country like South Africa, which experienced some of the worst racial and ethnic discrimination of the past century, would have known better than to implement such policies itself. But that is precisely what the University of Johannesburg has done with the decision by its Senate not to renew a research agreement with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Ostensibly, UJ objects to the policies practiced by BGU in “aiding and abetting the occupation” but in reality it’s the first institutional boycott of an Israeli university.
This decision would have been laughable were it not for the fact that the agreement under discussion deals with water reclamation – an area that BGU actively explores with Palestinian and Jordanian partners. If the Israelis and Palestinians are able to work together, it is truly sad that a third party should protest.
Moreover, during the past few years, BGU been subject to vicious attacks by another group of boycotters – the Jewish right wing, which has labelled it an “anti-Zionist” institution based on the views of a handful of researchers, and called upon its supporters to withhold donations. The UJ decision plays into the hands of these groups, strengthening their call for sanctions against those faculty who are critical of Israeli policies.
Obviously, the university is doing something right if it is being attacked by both the Right and the Left. It probably reflects the very real freedom of expression on BGU’s campus, which includes people who hold a variety of political opinions.
There is one critical difference, however, between South African universities during apartheid and Israeli universities during the long occupation. All South African universities acquiesced to their government’s policies, and openly practiced racial discrimination and segregation. Their faculty either remained silent or quit, ultimately condoning the South African system.
This contrasts sharply to the political debates which typify Israeli universities. Their faculty are not afraid to criticize government polices, or to be at the forefront of political debate.
And while this has led to much criticism, they are free to continue their research without fear of being punished, contrary to what the UJ would have us believe. Many of these faculty members are involved in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and research collaboration which UJ would, ostensibly, like to promote.
And while there is still much to improve on to reach greater equality, Israeli universities have Arab faculty and students availing themselves of higher education, regardless of the conflict. BGU practices outreach to the Beduin community, with many Beduin studying thanks to the benefit of earmarked scholarships.
It is not yet enough, but it can in no way be compared to what happened in South Africa during apartheid. No doubt, South African universities such as UJ still feel a great deal of guilt for their lack of activity when it was required.
THERE WILL be readers of this column who will object to my mentioning the two groups of boycotters – UJ delegitimizers and the Jewish right wing – in the same breath. But in many senses they are similar. They both choose to discriminate against scientific advancement on the basis of political views.
UJ’s decision not to continue with its water research agreement will have a detrimental effect on tens of thousands of South Africans who are seeking better access to water in environmental conditions which are similar to those experienced by Israel, while donors who withdraw their support from academic programs at Israeli universities are equally guilty of blocking scientific advancement.
Given the backlash to the UJ announcement, the university president has already come out with a statement to the effect that this is not an official boycott, and that the university has no problem with individual faculty members continuing joint research with BGU.
This is the exact opposite of what has happened in the UK, where attempts by individual faculty – radicalized members of the trade union – to implement a boycott have been totally rejected by the institutions.
UJ can’t have it both ways. Its decision was an official one, made by the university Senate, and it therefore represents the position of the institution, not of its individual faculty members. If, as a result of this decision, it is subject to donors withdrawing bequests, or the international funding agencies in the US and EU refusing to fund research at institutions which practice such discrimination – as is now very likely to happen – it has only itself to blame.
DURING THEIR recent fact-finding mission to BGU, senior members of UJ were offered the opportunity of facilitating further Israeli-Palestinian academic collaboration, with an important third-party role, in much the same way that many European and North American universities do. This proposal was completely missing from the report they produced when returning to South Africa.
They could have made a truly positive contribution to the region’s problems, and would have assisted like-minded faculty on both sides who desire to cooperate for scientific and political reasons.
Meanwhile Ben-Gurion University will continue to develop. Its 20,000 students and almost 1,000 teaching and research faculty will continue to push the frontiers of science.
Its politically aware faculty will continue to take part in the vibrant debate about the nature of Israeli society.
The boycotters, whether they be anti-Israel activists such as UJ, or the anti-democracy activists of Im Tirtzu and the right-wing donors, will become forgotten footnotes of history, remembered only for their attempt to manipulate science for their own narrow aims.
A plague on both of their discriminatory houses.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views in this article are his alone.