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UCT adopts Israel academic boycott, questions antisemitism



The University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) highest decision-making body has officially adopted resolutions to boycott Israeli academia and ensure that anti-Zionism cannot be not described as antisemitism.

This has caused consternation, especially with Jewish students having already been exposed to much anti-Israel antisemitism on campus this year.

“This is a sad day for UCT,” says Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT. “That an educational institution that purports to be the best in Africa promotes such an ill-informed and misguided position reflects poorly on its leadership.”

The decision “fosters a hostile environment for Jewish students and staff, increasing the likelihood of antisemitic incidents on campus”, says David Cohen, the chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) Cape Council. “Singling out Israeli institutions implicitly targets the Jewish community, contradicting the values of inclusivity and safety that any academic institution should uphold.”

The resolutions were passed by the university’s council at a vote on Saturday, 22 June. It was the last sitting of its current council, which includes several extremist members.

Cohen maintains the resolutions “infringe upon the constitutional right of UCT staff and students to freely associate and collaborate with their peers worldwide.

“The decisions to endorse motions calling for the boycott of Israeli institutions mark a troubling turn in the university’s commitment to academic freedom and global collaboration. This poses significant risks to the university’s academic and financial well-being, as well as to the principles of intellectual freedom and diversity,” he said.

In its resolutions, the council decided that UCT academics would be forbidden from having any relations with any person or group affiliated in any way with the Israel Defense Forces, or the broader Israeli military establishment. As Israel has conscription, this effectively means boycotting Israeli society.

It went on to oppose “any attempts to curtail academic freedom by labelling criticism of Israel or Zionist policies as antisemitism”, and it rejected “the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s conflation of critique of Zionism and Israel’s policies as antisemitism”.

The council vowed it would maintain solidarity with academic colleagues “victimised” for their willingness to speak out against what it described as the “educaracide in Gaza”.

Emeritus professor of philosophy at UCT, Professor David Benatar, agreed that the council’s decision “marks another sad day for UCT.

“In endorsing the resolution which requires UCT academics to boycott wide swathes of Israeli society, the council has both demonstrated its ignorance and exceeded its authority,” he said.

“Apparently, UCT’s governing body doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that its decision is in violation of a constitutional right to academic freedom. We can only hope that council’s decision will be legally challenged, and that the courts will adjudicate the matter impartially.”

Four well-placed sources, who aren’t members of council, spoke to the SA Jewish Report on condition of anonymity for their own safety. “Those voting only just made up a quorum, so half of the council wasn’t there to vote,” says the first source. The second says the vote wasn’t surprising as it was the “last hurrah” of council members who hate Israel. “Unfortunately, the chair and several outgoing members are major BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions coalition] supporters. My impression is they don’t have the support of the general staff or student body but have managed to get themselves over-represented in the decision-making fora.”

The third source says it was “the most compromised council in history, which repeatedly made terrible decisions that cost UCT a fortune, never with UCT interests at heart, just the desire to appear progressive”. A new council, with four new members that are much more moderate, will be sworn in on 6 July.

“It was disappointing and surprising that the outgoing UCT council supported a wrongheaded, substantively false, and poorly formulated set of senate resolutions,” says the fourth source. “The university continues to face severe leadership and governance issues. With this decision, the outgoing council has demonstrated its failure to fulfil its fiduciary mandate, and the chair of council has shamelessly put international issues above the council’s core responsibilities. Hopefully, the incoming council will apply its mind carefully and rescind this aberrant decision.”

The university officially announced the adoption of the two resolutions only on 24 June. The two motions had been adopted by a lower body, the senate, on 19 April, and were then passed to the council for official consideration. A separate motion calling for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions and research entities failed on 13 March, after being voted down at the senate by a narrow margin. In March 2019, the council rejected a similar resolution.

“The UCT council has usually rejected the senate’s often divisive political resolutions. This time, it passed the two resolutions,” says the Institute of Race Relations’ Sara Gon, who has written extensively about the academic-boycott stance of UCT.

“This is unwise in light of recent American experience with regards to the pro-Palestinian, and even pro-Hamas and pro-Hezbollah encampments,” says Gon. “But now, Harvard has decided not to pronounce on positions on issues that don’t directly affect the administration of the university. The reasons would include reputational damage and the consequent withdrawal of funding, particularly that of private funding.” Meanwhile, “UCT has in recent years suffered reputational damage because of the illiberal period of the Rhodes/FeesMustFall [movement], and deeply divisive governance of former Vice Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng.”

Gon, who is also the director of the Free Speech Union of South Africa, says, “The contestation of ideas should happen in the academic space, as it’s crucial for the development of critical thought that all views be expressed. Everyone must feel free to express their opinions, however they may be perceived by the opposite opinion holders.

“This is the foremost purpose of a university – creativity and contestation of ideas. The council must make sure that the administration performs as well as possible for academia to flourish, and with it, UCT’s reputation.”

SAZF’s Cohen said that the international academic community could now see UCT’s actions as “evidence of politically biased leadership, which can have far-reaching consequences”, including possibly diminishing the university’s ability to attract international funding and participate in research initiatives.

“Israeli universities are globally recognised leaders in fields such as water management, medical research, entrepreneurship, agriculture, and artificial intelligence,” says Cohen. “Excluding UCT from collaboration with Israeli scholars severely hampers its potential to remain at the forefront of these critical areas.”

Cohen says the boycott could also have an impact on the prospects of students, “particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds who rely on international bursaries and funding for their education. By isolating itself from Israeli academic institutions, UCT is choosing to forgo invaluable opportunities for its students and researchers.”

The SAZF called on UCT’s council to reconsider the motions. “Upholding academic freedom, fostering an inclusive environment, and maintaining global partnerships are essential for the university’s mission,” says Cohen. “It’s imperative that UCT remains a space where knowledge and ideas can flow freely, unimpeded by political biases and discriminatory practices.”

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  1. Gary

    June 27, 2024 at 11:38 am

    The Satanic Islamonazis and Communazis seize control in another university, Anti-Zionism and anti-Semtiism ARE one and the same thing!

  2. Jessica

    July 3, 2024 at 3:28 pm

    Ensuring that anti-Zionism cannot be not described as antisemitism is antisemitism per definition. UCT is now officially a safe place for Jew baiters.

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