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Israel boycott proposal back before UCT senate

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The University of Cape Town (UCT) senate is to meet on 10 May to consider and clarify its proposal for an academic boycott of Israeli universities.
by TALI FEINBERG | May 09, 2019

The meeting is at the behest of the UCT’s highest governing body, its council, which at the end of March sent a motion proposing that the academic boycott go back to the senate for consideration and clarification.

The motion being considered is as follows: “UCT will not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories, as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human-rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

In a letter to senate members, the university’s executive wrote, “Council considered the resolution at its meeting on 30 March 2019 and did not support it. It was the view of council that a number of issues required clarification, including a full assessment of the sustainability impact of the senate resolution.” It also said a more consultative process was necessary before the matter could be considered any further.

Sara Gon of the Institute of Race Relations, who has written extensively on the topic, says it is very difficult to tell which way this will go. “It’s possible that they might postpone the meeting or defer the decision on the basis that they haven’t had the time to go through all the representations properly yet,” Gon says.

Her latest article suggests that not only does the previous process “appear to have been sloppy, unprofessionally, and incredibly biased, but that the senate might be unlawfully constituted in terms of UCT’s governing statute. If it doesn’t look at this, the decision may be ultra vires [acting beyond its legal power or authority] for technical reasons.

“Its previous process was a shameful episode for UCT so it should be more careful this time,” she says. “A lot also depends on who attends this meeting. Fewer and fewer classically liberal academics are attending because they find the environment so hostile.”

A UCT academic who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “I suspect the vice-chancellor would like the whole thing to go away. She has other priorities, and this is all a distraction that, win or lose, does not help UCT in any way. What is unclear is how council’s edict is interpreted, and what the path forward is. I think the boycott effort is all but dead, but it’s not clear yet how the body will be buried.”

Meanwhile, Progress SA has put together a memo with nine reasons why senate members should reject the academic boycott. The organisation is fighting for academic freedom and against extremism on South Africa’s university campuses.

The memo says that such a boycott would violate academic freedom; that it will in principle allow boycotts of other countries’ universities; and that the free exchange of ideas plays an important role in influencing society towards a more moral position.

It also explains that adopting a boycott policy against Israel will isolate UCT from the international academic community and damage its institutional reputation; that boycotting Israeli institutions harms Arab scholars and students as well; and that a boycott will limit the ability of UCT staff and students to debate and discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict freely.

By accepting the boycott, “UCT will cease to be a university and instead become an ideological indoctrination chamber”, the organisation said. “Academic boycotts are likely to further entrench the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than bring it to a resolution, and it is morally undesirable to punish individual academics for the shortcomings of their governments.”

Says Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, “This resolution would have a severely detrimental effect on the university, including its reputation with other international universities and also its credibility as a globally recognised university. We believe academic freedom is paramount to the foundation of any reputable and serious institute of higher learning.

“Furthermore, the singling out of the Jewish state as the only country for this kind of sanction is blatantly anti-Semitic. It is our hope that the university will endorse and uphold the principles of academic freedom in the upcoming senate deliberations. Any resolutions should reconfirm the university’s ethos and commitment to fairness, justice, and non-racism.”

The South African Zionist Federation retweeted a recently published open letter by Harris Zvi Green in the Times of Israel. Green graduated from UCT in 1968, and lives in Israel, where he has been chief financial officer of a number of Israel based hi-tech companies.

He wrote, “The university’s senate and its student leadership body have become radicalised to the extreme... hijacked by anarchists to serve a warped, anti-Semitic agenda in complete contrast to the principles of academic freedom. Appeasement and an insatiable desire to be perceived as politically correct has replaced any structured decision and coherent policy making process.” Green said if the boycott was approved, he would publicly renounce the academic degree awarded to him by the university.

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