UCT is one vote away from boycotting Israel
The only thing standing in the way of this becoming UCT policy is a vote by its council on 30 March. If the council passes it, UCT will become the first university in the world to implement a formal academic boycott against Israel.
“The University of Cape Town will become an outlier if this goes ahead. Despite major efforts, there is no formal boycott of Israeli academic institutions worldwide,” said Sara Gon, a policy fellow at the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) who has written extensively on this topic.
“The irony is that UCT doesn’t have any formal relationships with Israeli universities, but this would ensure they do not enter into any. It would be a highly symbolic gesture, and it might encourage others to do the same. It will have enormous propaganda value, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will milk it for all its worth.”
If the resolution is implemented, Gon believes it will create major challenges for UCT. “Jewish support of UCT will virtually disappear,” she said, “and it is already tenuous. They say that when a country loses its Jews, it fails. It’s the same with universities. If you look at the number of South African Nobel Prize winners that went to UCT and were Jewish – that will never happen again.”
Gon added: “It will have a major problematic effect in relationships with universities in America. Boycotts have not succeeded there, despite much more consistent and formal efforts.”
She doesn’t think the University of the Witwatersrand will move to do the same, as it is “desperate to be a postgraduate university”. Neither will Stellenbosch University, “which wants to grow its reputation for business, innovation and technology”. In both cases, said Gon, “cutting relationships with Israel would be cutting off your nose to spite your face. If a university is not prepared to deal with Israel, they will fall behind and their position will be taken by other universities.”
So how did UCT get to this point? In November last year, UCT said its senate had “resolved by majority vote not to support the proposal from the Palestinian Solidarity Forum for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. UCT values the right to freedom of expression, and the role of the university to create and protect spaces for debate.”
It turns out this motion did not make it to the council’s agenda, and thus was never ratified by the university. “Ultimately, the pro-boycott groups saw it was time to kick it to touch,” said Gon. So it was placed back on the agenda of the senate, and this time, the members voted for the boycott motion: 62 for, 43 against, 10 abstentions, and 1 spoilt ballot.
“It has been bubbling under the surface for years. I believe it would never have happened with Dr Max Price as vice-chancellor, because he always believed in academic freedom, above all else. But since he left… I am not surprised it passed,” said Gon.
During his 10-year tenure, Price repeatedly spoke out against academic boycotts. In 2014, he said that “The day we ban people from speaking on our campus because we do not agree with their politics, is the day we sacrifice our commitment to academic freedom and the ability to protect different, unpopular, and dissident views.”
In 2017 he said his personal position coincides with the position of UCT, but things can change depending on the debate.
“There is a very persistent Palestinian Solidarity Forum, Academic Freedom Committee, and SRC (Students’ Representative Council)” says Gon.” As the years have gone by, the politics of the university have leaned more to the left, and new academics have supported that call. Many know very little of the conflict and are swayed by emotions and pernicious propaganda.”
“The irony is that the very issue of academic freedom should be front and centre of their deliberations. The situation in Israel should be of interest to academics, more than anyone. But generally their knowledge is poor, and they are swayed by left-wing attitudes towards Jews. This is a reflection of extreme leftism, where opinion is heard above fact. Emotion, self-righteous and even anti-Semitism generally come with it.”
Gon does think that those who believe in the future of UCT will fight against the council passing the resolution. However, she points out that the senate vote was kept under wraps until it was passed, so there may have been a lot of careful manoeuvring behind the scenes.
Ironically, this resolution goes against the subtle feelers that the South African government has been putting out about the role it can play in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Things are not as clear-cut as they were even a year ago. This is counter to the general move away from an ‘absolute position’. Israel does not deserve to be a pariah,” she said.
When contacted by the SA Jewish Report, UCT refused to answer questions or release a statement. “We cannot comment on a proposal which may or may not be accepted by council. There are processes to be followed and respected on this matter,” said UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola.
Rael Kaimowitz, chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ Cape council, said: “In voting in favour of boycotting its counterparts in Israel, the UCT senate has betrayed the university’s long and honourable record of upholding the values of academic freedom, even during the difficult years of the apartheid era.
“The senate decision is also grossly discriminatory. Why should UCT have chosen to single out Israeli universities when there are territorial disputes around the world, and countries with appalling human rights records about whom nothing is said?
“The boycott campaign at UCT has further been characterised by gross procedural unfairness against the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), which has strenuously campaigned against the initiative. Time and again, the SAUJS has found itself sidelined, denied an equal opportunity to present its case, left in the dark about crucial upcoming developments, and in general placed at a serious disadvantage vis-à-vis the boycott lobby,” added Kaimowitz.
“We urge the UCT council to reject the emotive, one-sided political posturing of the boycott lobby and instead reaffirm UCT’s long-standing commitment to the values of academic freedom. Our universities belong to all of us. We should not allow them to be hijacked by special-interest lobbies for purposes of conducting one-sided and immoral political vendettas.”