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Hunter’s inclusion on academic panel gives his agenda legitimacy

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It was distressing that Mitchel Joffe Hunter, a vehement supporter of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Israel-boycott campaign, was given centre stage on a panel on Jewish history in South African public life. The panel was part of a recent conference on South African Jewish history held by the Kaplan Centre at UCT with the Institute of Jewish Studies of University College London.
by Rowan Polovin, SAZF national chairperson, Johannesburg | Oct 22, 2020

Hunter is a member of South African Jews for a Free Palestine, which supports and lends respectability to the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement’s noxious antisemitism. He was given an unduly elevated platform on a panel that included representatives of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), the South African Jewish Museum, and the South African Holocaust Centre, none of whom were invited to submit papers or abstracts. Hunter was the only one of the session’s panellists to have a paper abstract, based on his MA thesis, included in the conference.

The organisers acknowledge that they were fully cognisant of his BDS activities. When we contacted Professor Mendelsohn to raise our concerns, he claimed that though the conveners had discussed Hunter’s BDS background, the panel discussion wasn’t explicitly related to Israel so gave no cause for concern.

We are astounded by their inability to understand the legitimacy they lent him and his divisive and dangerous political agenda. We were surprised, also, to read an email to participants claiming, “It is news to us that he is one of the leaders of the UCT academic-boycott effort”, and to learn of Professor Gilbert’s “surprise” that the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) didn’t make contact with her about the issue. Did Mendelsohn fail to discuss our concerns with his co-convenor? At no point did he recommend we contact her, also, given their partnership, it never occurred to us to do so.

Contrary to Gilbert’s claim that we are trying to “curtail the academic freedom exercised at the conference”, neither the SAZF nor the petition circulated by Dave Kaplan of “concerned citizens for academic freedom”, called for the boycotter not to present at the conference. Having championed the fight for academic freedom at UCT alongside the SAJBD, the SAZF strongly upholds academic freedom.

However, we always call out those who work to delegitimise the Jewish state and harm South African Jewry. For this reason, we engaged with the conference organisers, asking them to ensure that, in light of the political campaigns to boycott Israel and Israelis from academic and public life, the panel should be balanced by input on the panel discussion from an Israeli academic. They rejected our request on the fatuous grounds that Israelis appeared on other (unrelated) panels.

It’s deeply ironic that we are accused of being boycotters when we call out those who advocate for boycotts of Israel. They would use the privilege and cloak of academic freedom to deny the same to others. Academic freedom doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and shouldn’t be abused in pursuit of political agendas. It’s thoroughly reprehensible to work with the enemies of the Jewish people, incite against South African Jewry, and advocate that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist.

The Kaplan Centre ought to be cognisant of its responsibility to the South African Jewish community. The conference has no mandate to increase the risk of dangerous outcomes for South African Jews in the real world beyond the ivory tower.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Basil Dubb 23 Oct
    Conformity is important.
    The SAZF should immediately establish a vetting desk within the Kaplan Centre to enforce academic freedom.

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