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Anti-Israel scholar to give ‘academic freedom’ lecture at UCT

  • Steve-Salaita-Headshot
The University of Cape Town (UCT) has invited Israel-hater Dr Steven Salaita to give its annual academic freedom lecture this week. A proponent of academic boycotts of Israel, Salaita was scheduled to speak about the “Inhumanity of Academic Freedom” on Wednesday night.
by TALI FEINBERG | Aug 08, 2019

In 2014, after three Jewish West Bank teenagers were kidnapped and killed by terrorists, Salaita tweeted, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the f*cking West Bank settlers would go missing.”

In other tweets that year, he said, “The logic of anti-Semitism deployed by Zionists, if applied in principle, would make pretty much everybody [who is] not a sociopath, anti-Semitic,” and “Zionists: transforming anti-Semitism from something horrible into something honourable since 1948”. He went on to write: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.”

Academics and watchdog groups warned that inviting Salaita to give the TB Davie Memorial on academic freedom was dangerous in light of UCT’s tilt towards extremism, and a possible boycott of Israeli universities and academics.

Scott Roberts, the secretary of Progress SA – an organisation fighting for academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses – wrote on Politicsweb, “TB Davie is remembered by UCT as a fearless defender of the principles of academic freedom. As vice-chancellor, he resisted the attempts by South Africa’s racist, illiberal Nationalist government to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught, and how it should be taught.”

Roberts went on to say, “Since 2017, the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) has been captured by people who have no regard for academic freedom. Many of its members are single-issue activists who wish to use their position on the committee to try enforce a university-wide academic boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions. They do this while maintaining a chilling indifference, not only to the behaviour of any other state, but also to the rights of the members of UCT to associate with, or learn from, whoever they like. The AFC’s commitment to academic freedom has become dubious, to say the least.”

Roberts said that Salaita using the TB Davie lecture as “a platform to denigrate the principle of academic freedom is akin to someone using a lecture in memory of a prominent feminist activist to promote the idea that men are inherently superior to women”.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, he said, “Steven Salaita is a Palestinian nationalist who has written extensively in favour of boycotting Israel. It is our belief that he has been invited by the AFC to drive a BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] agenda.”

Cary Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois, wrote a letter to South African students and faculty, claiming there was “more than one painful irony at stake in selecting Salaita as a spokesperson for academic freedom”.

“Salaita’s fierce anti-Zionism last year led him to cross a particularly dangerous line into anti-Semitism. He urged that Zionists be cast out of progressive organisations and campaigns. The effect on a campus or community would be abhorrent,” Nelson wrote.

He said Salaita had previously indulged in hate speech, and might well do so again in South Africa. “The campus and community should organise alternative programming to ensure that opposing views are heard. It’s particularly critical to do so because Cape Town is presently considering a proposal to support an academic boycott of Israeli universities.”

University of Cape Town academics also aired their concerns. Professor David Benatar wrote on Politicsweb, “Whether [so-called] pro-Palestinian views can be expressed is thus not a test of academic freedom in South Africa or at UCT. The test of freedom of expression and academic freedom is whether non-dominant views can be freely expressed. UCT has repeatedly failed that test.”

Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT, told the SA Jewish Report, “I presume Salaita was selected as a provocation. The selection of Salaita and his purported theme confirms that the AFC has become Orwellian [destructive to the welfare of a free and open society] in name and purpose.”

Milton Shain, emeritus professor of history at UCT, said, “The vice-chancellor should acknowledge that the presence of Dr Salaita would be a threat to the dignity of at least a portion of the campus.”

Meanwhile, the university seems oblivious to the situation. UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng wrote that the lecture was “in line with its ideals of championing the principles of academic freedom. The presenter will argue that academic freedom is often a myth that is prioritised over the political movements it’s meant to protect.”

AFC chairperson Professor Elelwani Ramugondo said, “It would go against the principle of academic freedom for the University of Cape Town to ever bar anyone from speaking at the university due to their personal beliefs. Academic freedom as a principle includes the right of people to hold differing views and be able to express them.

“Dr Steven Salaita fell victim to an infringement upon this right as an academic when his offer for a tenured position as a professor at the University of Illinois was revoked following a series of controversial social-media postings. Freedom of speech and academic freedom, although not the same, are related.

“In honouring TB Davie, particularly his courage to defend academic freedom, it’s important to remember that UCT has a patchy history in sustaining what TB Davie espoused, with moments of regret that we continue to learn from. Threats to academic freedom – and by extension freedom of expression – must also be understood as an expression of dominant interests that operate both within and outside the academy. It is in this context that someone like Dr Salaita could face dire consequences affecting his otherwise illustrious academic career for expressing his personal views publicly. It would be wrong to presuppose what Dr Salaita will be speaking about, and solely based on speculation, seek to censor him,” concluded Ramugondo.

Sara Gon of the Institute of Race Relations and an expert on academic freedom at UCT said, “In three consecutive years the AFC has had speakers with an anti-Israel bias. The AFC is also the power behind what I understand to have been an unprocedural referral of a proposal to the senate to boycott Israeli academia. There is definitely an agenda being driven.

 “Presumably he was chosen by those who strongly support a boycott, and would hope that it swings sentiment in their favour,” she added. “I think, though, that various interests could creatively undermine it before the senate next votes. A lot will depend on what he says, and what the pro-boycotters try to do with it.”


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