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New UCT Council must repeal lame-duck anti-Israel resolution

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Six months ago, I resigned as chairperson of the University of Cape Town (UCT) Fund, where I had served my alma mater for more than 20 years. I did so because the UCT Council, the university’s highest governing body, issued a statement on the war between Israel and Hamas which was so detached from reality and so morally repugnant, I could no longer in good conscience be associated with UCT.

Last Saturday, the council adopted two resolutions, one a potpourri of anti-Israel invective, Hamas propaganda, calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, and rejection of the definition of antisemitism most widely accepted by Jewish and many other people; and the other effectively amounting to a blanket boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.

Since my resignation, I have remained engaged with senior administration officials at UCT, and I believe these recent council resolutions don’t reflect the majority position of UCT’s leaders but resulted from the opportunistic hijacking of the UCT Council by a minority of lame-duck members. It’s a sad example of the depths to which those who hate Israel will stoop. There’s hope, however, that the new council, which has just this week taken its place, will set UCT on a more rational and moral course. I strongly urge it to do so.

As I understand it, these anti-Israel resolutions were added late to the agenda for the very last meeting of the current council – which happened to coincide with a Springbok rugby match – and were passed by a narrow majority of a bare quorum, a minority of the full council, most of whom are likely not returning to the newly elected council. In other words, those on the outgoing council who support Hamas over Israel opportunistically pushed through these undeniably highly contentious – and I would say morally despicable – resolutions, purporting to speak for the entire university. They effectively tossed in a few hand grenades on their way out the door. Not only is this procedurally deplorable, but it is highly irresponsible of them to seek to put the new council and the incoming vice-chancellor in a difficult situation.

Regarding the substance of the resolutions, which were recommended by the UCT senate – or at least those members who showed up to vote – it’s unfortunate that so many of UCT’s senior academics are ignorant, misinformed, intellectually dishonest, morally bankrupt or antisemitic, or some combination of all of the above. The widespread ignorance or misinformation is obvious but inexcusable given the amount of information available. Supporting the genocidal terrorists, mass murderers, and rapists of Hamas over the state of Israel is all you need to show utter moral degradation. The intellectual dishonesty is evident in their misleading and amusingly ironic straw-man argument against “the attempts to curtail academic freedom by labelling criticism of Israel or Zionist policies as antisemitism” and their mischaracterisation of the widely-accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. It’s a shame that this is what much of the UCT academic body has sunk to, but I’m hopeful that when the current tidal wave of antisemitism has passed, many of those who supported this perversity will come to their senses.

One of the first actions the newly constituted council must take is to repeal these disgraceful resolutions. And it must do so before the new vice-chancellor takes up his position in October. It’s most unfair to expect him to start his leadership of UCT with a suicide belt strapped to him. Aside from the obvious problems noted above, these resolutions distinguish UCT negatively in the academic world. Most universities are adopting policies that will pursue their intended function as fora for education, research, debate, and learning, and are refraining from taking stands on political issues not directly related to their institutional functions. If UCT does the opposite, will it then weigh in on other global political situations, or will it continue to reserve all of its vitriol for the nation state of the Jewish people?

If not repealed quickly, these resolutions will almost certainly add fundraising challenges, and perhaps even have legal implications, potentially resulting in UCT being added to the list of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) supporting organisations under many United States state anti-BDS laws. I’m no expert on South African discrimination law, but one has to wonder if they would pass muster under those too.

Let’s hope for the sake of UCT and education in South Africa that the incoming council members are wiser and more moral than their predecessors.

  • Trevor Norwitz is a lawyer in New York City and teaches at Columbia Law School. He grew up in Cape Town and attended UCT, and was Chair of the UCT Fund from 2004 to 2024.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Teddy Levy

    July 12, 2024 at 12:38 am

    Balderdash to them. These people are flexing their muscles without any understanding or substance. They are mouthing off without any thoughts of what really should be occupying their thought processes-if indeed they possess those- where thinking is a very controlled thing which has significant affects on others less fortunate than they are. think before commenting on something you do not have any real knowledge about. Empty vessels make the most noise.

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