Call for alumni to block BDS ‘hostile takeover’ bid at UCT
A secret group, calling itself the Concerned Citizens for Academic Freedom at UCT, has petitioned alumni – at the eleventh hour – to vote out BDS-friendly candidates in today’s (Thursday’s) convocation elections. The group, however, has the full support of the South African Zionist Federation and South African Friends of Israel. By Wednesday afternoon, 65 000 alumni had signed the petition.
The group believes that these BDS-friendly candidates plan to impose a UCT boycott against Israel, something that has been tried a number of times and failed. In fact, there has been a long-running effort by anti-Israel pressure groups for UCT to impose the boycott.
In March last year, the UCT senate passed a resolution to boycott Israeli universities. The UCT council determined that a more consultative process along with an assessment of the impact of the resolution on the institution’s sustainability was needed, and referred the matter back to the senate. The senate reconsidered, then rejected it, and effectively rescinded the resolution.
However, there is now fear among Jewish and other alumni that the Israel boycott bid might come back if certain delegates get selected to the council, the university’s highest decision-making body. “We urgently need your UCT vote to keep the newly elected council balanced and fair,” read the change.org petition.
“BDS has put together a slate of candidates to run with the aim of overturning the work that has been achieved. This is a hostile takeover of UCT, and we need your help to stop it.”
This week’s election is to select the four convocation seats that will go forward to join the new 30-member council that governs the university. The convocation is the only place alumni can make a difference. Eight delegates were selected for the four available convocation seats on the council, and an electronic ballot is being held. The election closes today at 16:00.
“The council is composed of people elected by students on the Student Representative Council, people elected by the staff of the university, people appointed by various levels of government, (the minister of higher education, the mayor of Cape Town, the premier of the Western Cape), and other people who are part of council ex officio,” says Jordan Seligmann, the former chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) in the Western Cape.
“[Members of the public] can’t control the election of most of these seats as this is done by government officials or stakeholders closer to the university, but as alumni of the university, we are part of the convocation who elect the four people to sit on the council.”
The council, which will serve for a term of four years from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2024, has a wide range of powers over university policy. “Once council has decided on something, short of changing delegates’ minds, the only [route of ] appeal is a court of law,” Seligmann says.
Progress SA, a student organisation which says it’s fighting for a free future, posted on Twitter, “We have reason to believe that pro-Israel boycott candidates are trying to get elected to the UCT council in an attempt to drive an anti-academic-freedom agenda. The boycott lobby will try again to force through a motion to enforce a boycott instead of leaving the decision about who to associate with up to individual academics.”
According to insiders, among the list of candidates, at least two are BDS-aligned. One of them, Dr Shuaib Manjra, is described as a “kingpin” in the attempt to get UCT to boycott Israeli institutions.
Manjra, a sports and occupational medicine physician and consultant, has served on the executive committee of Open Shuhada Street, an anti-Israel, BDS-aligned, pro-Palestine advocacy group. He posts prolifically on anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian affairs on social media, and advises UCT’s Palestine Solidarity Forum.
According to Sara Gon of the Institute of Race Relations, Manjra has sat on the council for years. “He was the faculty advisor for the Palestine Students Council which pushed for the previous boycott call at UCT in 2019. He is a dedicated anti-Israel spokesperson, and was a prime mover in recent years to get UCT to boycott Israeli academia.”
Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, told the SA Jewish Report, “BDS is attempting a renewed assault on academic freedom at UCT.”
He says the BDS-aligned candidates are running for positions on the UCT council with the sole purpose of pushing through another bid to boycott Israel.
Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says events at UCT over the past couple of years have shown how critical it is to have responsible university leadership who hold dear the values of academic freedom.
“We have seen a hardline anti-Israel faction repeatedly trying to hijack critical university decision-making structures, at senate and council level, in order to pressurise UCT into imposing an academic boycott. These attempts violate the basic tenets of academic freedom, polarise the university community, and cause it to deviate from other issues of critical importance to its functioning and strategic imperatives.”
Alumnus David Kaplan, who was active in 2019 in mobilising the global opposition of alumni to the proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions, is involved once again.
“Alumni around the world still strongly feel the connection, and only want the best for their alma mater. This is in stark contrast to those sectarian, agenda-driven BDS supporters whose sole aim is to advocate a boycott instead of trying to maintain openness and diversity of discourse,” he says.
“BDS agitators at UCT aren’t advocating boycotts of the worst human-rights violators in the world, only against the state of Israel. This vote is critically important as it could have a decisive impact on future UCT policy and its international academic stature.”