It was a scandal of the highest caliber. On November 23, the Senate of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa was practically bullied to reverse an earlier decision that called for the academic boycott of Israel. While the story may seem relevant in South Africa’s political and academic contexts, in reality, it exemplifies the nature of a brewing war between supporters of Palestinian rights and Israeli interests, worldwide.
In fact, the UCT scandal began much earlier.
Calls for South African universities to join the academic boycott of apartheid Israel were first answered by the University of Johannesburg on September 29, 2010. Decisive action taken by the Faculty Senate at the university sent a clear message to Israel’s academic institutions that South African academics would no longer accommodate Israeli crimes, including the crime of apartheid, in the name of scientific cooperation or “academic freedom”.
The severing of ties between the University of Johannesburg and Israel’s Ben Gurion University sounded the alarm among Israel’s supporters in South Africa, under the leadership of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), which fanned out throughout the country warning of the supposed rise of anti-Semitism.
However, the successful campaign in Johannesburg inspired other student groups across the country to carry on with their mission of holding the Israeli state accountable for its racism, apartheid and military occupation. In August 2012, the Student Representative Council at the University of Witwatersrand adopted a resolution that called for a full academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Support for Palestine continued. In response to the deadly Israeli war on Gaza in the summer of 2014, more than 300 members of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, including the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Sizwe Maisel, condemned Israeli violence targeting the besieged Strip.
In August 2014, the University of Cape Town’s Student Representative Council (UCT SRC) began its campaign aimed at cutting ties between UCT and Israel in response to a memorandum introduced by the Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF). The students had courageously and “unconditionally” declared Israel an apartheid state, calling for the boycott of Israeli products, and demanding the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to the country.
UCT students have so much to be proud of, as their efforts, combined with a massive grassroots movement throughout South Africa, did, in fact, push the government to rethink its ties with Israel. In May 2018, Pretoria recalled its ambassador to Israel to protest the Israeli army killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza.
The UCT student efforts began paying dividends on March 15, 2019, when the University Senate passed a resolution that called on the university not to engage with any Israeli academic institutions, whether those operating within the occupied Palestinian territories or any others that contribute to Israel’s gross human rights violations in Palestine.
Considering the importance of UCT as Africa’s top academic institution, and the democratic nature of its Senate, which includes 363 representatives, the pro-Palestine resolution was too much for Israel’s supporters to bear.
On March 19, the SAJBD and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the UCT’S Council to reject the resolution. At the time, an influential SAJBD member told the right-wing Israeli newspaper, the Jerusalem Post, that the Senate had “shamefully caved in to pressure from radical anti-Israel lobby groups”.
Wary of outside pressures, yet careful not to lose all credibility within the Senate, the 30-member UCT’s Council, which includes representatives who have been “elected by donors”, attempted to exert pressure at the Senate without rejecting the resolution outright. On March 30, the Council sent the resolution back to the Senate to “reconsider”.
Since then, a battle of wills ensued, involving, on the one hand, student groups and their supporters in the Senate and, on the other, the Council and the many pressure groups, leading among them SAJBD and SAZF.
Weighing in on the matter, 65 distinguished Jewish scholars signed a letter addressed to UCT, “to preserve (its previous) resolution and safeguard the University’s academic freedom and autonomy.”
The March resolution, the letter argued, “establishes UCT as an adherent to international law and affirms the university as a partner in the struggle for human rights in Israel/Palestine.”
The following passage highlighted the nature of the ugly opposition that the resolution had inspired, which culminated in the unfortunate decision of the Senate in November to strike down its own previous commitment:
“Over the past six months, opponents of this resolution have used backdoor fear-mongering about the withdrawal of private funding to cripple the institution thereby undermining the academic freedom of the UCT Senate members.”
Sadly, even such a candid and passionate call failed to dissuade the Council from pressuring the Senate, which led to the November 23 vote and the reversal of the March resolution.
Israel’s friends in South Africa are now gloating, welcoming the badly needed respite from Israel’s political misfortunes in the country.
While, indeed, the UCT Senate decision is a regrettable setback, it is most likely to invigorate pro-Palestine campaigners in South Africa, so that they may take the academic boycott movement to every academic institution in the country that engages with and validates human rights violators in Israel, Palestine or anywhere else in the world.
I visited South Africa for the third time in September. My speaking tour in that beautiful and ever-inspiring country has taken me to several universities, government and civil society offices, and other intellectual and community forums. Certainly, in all of my travels I have never experienced such harmony between politicians, academics, and civil society activists regarding the rights of the Palestinian people and the insistence on holding Israeli criminals to account.
The boycott of Israel, as championed by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is hardly on the decline, as the recent decision by the US Brown University committee on corporate responsibility to divest from Israeli companies amply demonstrates.
However, it behooves the University of Cape Town to rethink its priorities and to choose between its commitment to those “elected by donors” and the democratic ideals as championed by post-Apartheid South Africa.