Stellenbosch University discriminates against Israeli academics

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Professor Shifrah Sagy of Ben Gurion University in the Negev found out she had been excluded from attending a conference at Stellenbosch University when she saw that the names of her and fellow delegates from Israel had simply been erased from the programme.
by TALI FEINBERG | Nov 29, 2018

The conference, titled “Recognition, Reparation and Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma” is to be held at the university from 5 to 9 December.

Professor Arie Nadler of Tel Aviv University, who was also due to present at the conference, described his experience. “About ten days ago, [conference organiser and chairperson] Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela informed me that there were calls to remove Israeli scholars from the programme, and wished to consult on how to overcome this hurdle.”

The organisations calling for the boycott include the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and South African Jews for a Free Palestine.

Two to three days later, Gobodo-Madikizela had a meeting, “after which she wrote that the issue was resolved, and all Israelis were welcome, and their safety was guaranteed. I made preparations to go to Stellenbosch. I then learned that pressure was mounting, and conference leaders had decided to take all Israelis off the programme. In other words, we were to be silenced due to our nationality.

“Throughout this affair, Gobodo-Madikizela invested in efforts to rectify the situation and not give up to the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions]-related pressures and threats,” Nadler said. “Yet, it seems to me that she was alone on the frontline, in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to protect her Israeli colleagues, or risk the dismantling of the project.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Gobodo-Madikizela said that the decision to exclude the Israelis went against her personal and professional values. She said she had worked extensively with Israelis in dialogue with Palestinians.

It is clear that the professor was pressurised into making the decision, and she hinted that threats of violence towards one particular academic was the reason she had to capitulate.

Sagy described herself and fellow Israeli delegates as “peace activists”, as they are all deeply invested in reconciliation work in the region. Professor Mohammed Dajani Daoudi, from Al-Quds University, was also disinvited. He is the founder of the Wasatia movement of moderate Islam, and took Palestinian students on a groundbreaking trip to Auschwitz.

Professor Raya Morag of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was to deliver a lecture titled “Perpetrator trauma, current Israeli cinema, and speaking truth to power”, which “deals with current Israeli documentary cinema’s objection to the occupation, and its call to the Israeli government to recognise our ethical obligation to the Palestinians”.

Sagy thinks the Israelis’ work towards reconciliation and dialogue “frightened” those who opposed their visit. “They don’t want normalisation between Israelis and Palestinians,” she said.

Said Nadler, “Science is based on free sharing of thoughts and findings by all. It is a hollow venture when certain people cannot speak in public because of their gender, nationality, colour, or religion. This is discrimination of the most violent kind.”

The Rector of Hebrew University, Professor Barak Medina, wrote to the Rector of Stellenbosch University, Professor Wim de Williers, to express his concern that “conference organisers have succumbed to [the] political pressure directed against all Israeli academics, violating basic principles of academic freedom and debate. We find this entirely unacceptable and uncollegial.

“Even the so-called Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel formally recognises academic freedom and freedom of expression, and does not endorse discrimination on the basis of citizenship,” he wrote.

Ironically, Stellenbosch University describes itself as pursuing an “inspiring vision – to be inclusive, innovative and future focused... This is done through broadening access to the institution.”

In a media statement, the university’s management said it supported the handling of the matter, saying, “Free and constructive academic discourse at the university takes place in the framework of our commitment to justice and healing for all... The conference offers an opportunity for conversation with academics who find themselves in the midst of a contemporary situation of trauma.”

South Africans expressed their outrage on social media at the decision to exclude Israeli delegates. “As an old ‘Matie’ myself, I am shocked to see how Stellenbosch University is favouring politics above academics. I do not believe that this portraits [sic] the general sentiment of most educated South Africans,” said one man on Twitter.

Brenda Stern wrote on Facebook, “Once again, SA bows to BDS hate and loses an opportunity to contribute to peace and reconciliation… Shame on you Stellenbosch University, you just silenced academic freedom!”

Describing the boycott as “racist and anti-Semitic”, Ben Swartz, the National Chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, said, “It is unfathomable that not only were Israelis disinvited, but even Palestinians working in the space of conflict resolution. This shows the anti-peace agenda of BDS that needs to be confronted. We call on Stellenbosch University to uphold freedom of expression and to support – not stymie – efforts to reach peace.”

Wendy Kahn, the National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said that the board had been in discussion with the university’s leadership. “This capitulation to the bullying tactics of the BDS has no place in academia. The organisers of the conference have restricted the narrative of the conference to views that are consistent with their own. This does not bode well for academic values and principles at their institution.”


  1. 5 Jp 29 Nov
    Sadly ironic considering the title of the conference. Stellenbosch have a chance to salvage their reputation by reinviting the Israelis. Otherwise they will be tainted with the same ugly blemish that UJ gained due to similar BDS thuggery in 2011.
  2. 4 Martin 30 Nov
    Please find Stellenbosch University's statement below:
    30 November 2018
    An objective of the Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma conference at Stellenbosch University is to bring together scholars and practitioners to deliberate on important questions relating to historical wounding and haunting legacies as a result of trans-generational trauma.
    To name but a few: What is the appropriate response to the echoes of historical wounding that extend far beyond the generation that experienced the trauma directly? What strategies might quell the haunting repercussions of genocide, slavery, colonial oppression, and mass violence that play out in the lives of affected individuals and groups from both sides of these acts? 
    It is therefore regrettable that the Israeli | Palestinian narrative has now spilled over to the conference, achieving exactly the opposite of the vision for the event, and in the process attempting to vilify Stellenbosch University and Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, chair of the conference committee and incumbent of the Research Chair for Historical Trauma and Transformation at the University.
    I would like to state the following unequivocally:   
    Stellenbosch University supports freedom of expression and academic freedom, and is no way anti-Semitic or anti-Palestinian.
    Terminology such as “disinvited, uninvited or invitation unilaterally cancelled” in reference to speakers who will no longer be attending, is simply not true. At no point did the conference organisers or Stellenbosch University request or suggest that any speaker should withdraw from the event. Neither were any individuals singled out or vilified on Stellenbosch University’s social media platforms. The University has no control over the newsletters or social media platforms of external organisations. Prof Gobodo-Madikizela continued her engagement with the various role players in a spirit of reconciliation, expressing regret over their withdrawal and assuring them of their safety in South Africa if they were to attend.
    When the first statement expressing opposition to the participation of Israeli speakers came to the attention of the organisers, a strategic decision was taken to remove the names of individuals and their institutions from the website (not from the programme) as a precautionary measure to prevent academics and their institutions from being targeted, and to prevent the conference from derailing.
    Israeli delegates decided to withdraw their participation as a result of circumstances beyond the control of the University and the conference organising committee.
    The most disappointing outcome of this sequence of events is the absence of robust debate on the Israeli | Palestinian issue at the conference.
    Prof Wim de Villiers
    Rector and Vice-Chancellor

  3. 3 Robert Polaco 01 Dec
    Shame on you Stellenbosch University, you just silenced academic freedom!”
    This doesn't come as a surprise. Sad that many uninformed and misinformed minds are indoctrinated by those with anti-Semitic sentiments. In essence, people can't give what they don't have. Internally battling unresolved issues of prejudice and a lack of integrity to stand for what is morally right. I'm of the mind that Israel does its best to diffuse the current mindset of people that have negatively charged by the Palestinian agenda, educating the public and of course that God would go before them.
  4. 2 Jp 06 Dec

    Thank you for posting the rectors statement.  It would seem the situation is complex & perhaps Stellenbosch deserves our support & sympathy as they are a civil,  educatuonal organization that has fallen victim to a militant group of BDS thugs. The university should be a safe space for debate & strives to be one - BDS have destroyed that safe space.
  5. 1 Nas 06 Dec
    Academic freedom only seems to apply to some.


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