A case study in how to invite a boycott

It is startling how leadership of BGU did not see what every Jewish student in South Africa could, chose to engage wholeheartedly in perverted process.

South Africa University boycott vote (photo credit: Associated Press)
South Africa University boycott vote
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Last week the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement celebrated its first major success in securing an academic boycott against an Israeli institution, with the University of Johannesburg voting to sever ties with Ben-Gurion University.
Yet while the initiative was driven by academics serving deep political agendas, in contradiction with the desire of their own student population, the real blame for this fiasco lies with the leaders of BGU, which during the six months preceding the 72-45 vote in favor of boycott legitimized the BDS campaign.
It beggars belief that a university among the world’s top 300 was left literally begging a poor academic institution – ranked outside the world’s top 2,000 – to retain links which served only to benefit UJ.
A glance at the letters sent by the political leadership of BGU to UJ is enough to leave one feeling nauseated.
In response to a demand from the Senate of UJ that no research related to the UJ partnership in any way benefit the Israeli military or be used for “abuse of human rights,” BGU decided to “support the UJ Executive in meeting its conditions.”
In other words it, by omission, accepted the plausibility of Israeli human rights abuses, and agreed to refrain from any activity with military connotations.
THERE CAN be no doubt that BGU had all the facts on its side; it rightfully argued that an academic boycott of an independent institution is counterproductive to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was equally correct in noting that UJ maintains links with dictatorships such as Belarus while singling out a democracy for censure, and that the current partnership does indeed provide increased academic opportunities for UJ students while supplying clean drinking water for ordinary South Africans.
It wouldn’t have taken a master of political science to have seen that this was nothing more than a show trial in a kangaroo court. It is startling how the leadership of BGU could not have seen what every Jewish student in South Africa surely could, and chose to engage wholeheartedly in a perverted process while offering it enormous legitimacy.
From the outset, once UJ decided to hold a vote on whether to retain its links with BGU, it should have been made clear that if it wished to deprive its students of the opportunity to learn revolutionary techniques of supplying clean water to a nation where one in six children die as a result of drinking contaminated drinking water, it could do so.
Instead, BGU was bullied until the proud “academics” of UJ decided to confirm what for everyone apart from BGU was an obvious inevitability. This whole process was a farce, devoid of anything even remotely resembling academic debate, and BGU’s decision to engage in the process is frankly embarrassing.
Ultimately all BGU managed to do by offering concession after concession – which included allowing UJ to review its operations for contributions to human rights abuses – was to legitimize not only the debate with UJ, but the entire BDS movement.
What is now being reported as an “historic moment for the movement to boycott Israel” could have easily been “BGU ends partnership with UJ over unfair bias,” or even “BGU ends partnership with UJ over its ties to institutions in the Belarus dictatorship.”
IT IS no revelation that in Israel we have become far too good at apologizing when we have nothing to apologize for, and BGU managed to highlight this as never before in this latest effort. When there is an argument to be won, let’s win it, but engaging in this debate was always just about as effective as turning up at an Iranian Holocaust Conference. Ultimately it is Jewish students in South Africa that have to go back to university under morale-sapping conditions as BGU failed to see that it was engaging in a process with a pre-determined verdict.
The South African Union of Jewish Students was the only communal Jewish organization urging a more aggressive stance rather than capitulating to the progressively harsher concessions the Executive of UJ demanded BGU make to save the partnership.
Ultimately this startling loss, the effects of which will be felt far from South Africa, and has resulted in priceless coverage for the BDS movement, was fought for nothing. Six months ago BGU could have withdrawn this partnership agreement and given it to a university in a country that does appreciate the assistance it would be willing to offer, and this BDS campaign would have gone unnoticed.
Ben-Gurion University proudly noted its “moral responsibility” to protect its partnership with UJ in order to “not abandon” its partners there.
I would remind the leadership of BGU of its “moral responsibility” to every other Israeli academic institution, Jewish students worldwide who defend Israel against academic boycotts, and indeed the State of Israel itself, to all of whom this affair has proven devastating.
The writer is chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students, the international umbrella organization for 48 national Jewish student unions.