Varsity row over Israel links

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) is considering cutting academic ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in protest against Ben Gurion’s alleged association with Palestinian human rights abuses.

An “extraordinary” meeting of the university’s senate debated the matter on Monday.

The university’s current partnership with Ben Gurion dates from August when the two signed an academic cooperation and staff exchange agreement, relating to water purification and micro-algal biotechnology research.

This re-established a relationship forged between the former Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) and Ben Gurion in the apartheid 1980s. RAU merged with Technikon Witwatersrand in 2005 to form the University of Johannesburg.

In October, 52 academic staff members signed a petition opposing the current partnership. It states in part: “The Palestinian people are currently victims of an Israeli occupation, which violates their human rights as well as international law. Their plight has been repeatedly compared with that of black South Africans under apartheid.”


Professor Steven Friedman presented the pro-boycott argument in the senate on behalf of the petitioners. “We are not asking UJ to join a boycott campaign against Israel,” said Friedman, who is the director of the joint UJ-Rhodes University Centre for the Study of Democracy.

“But we are asking them not to sign agreements with institutions which collaborate with governments that commit human rights violations,” he told the Mail & Guardian.

Friedman argued that:

  • Israel has 53 apartheid-style laws that discriminate between Jews and non-Jews;
  • The Israeli occupation of Gaza is a colonial exercise; and
  • The Ben Gurion offers stipends and partial exemptions from its degree requirements to members of the Israeli military, and tenders for Israeli Defence Force research contracts.
  • The partnership was defended in the senate meeting by Professor Ilan Troen, the Ben Gurion’s founding dean of humanities and social sciences, and South African advocate David Unterhalter.

    Troen flew to South Africa from Israel for the meeting; Unterhalter appeared pro bono. Their participation was organised by the South African Associates of Ben Gurion University, the president of which, Bertram Lubner, is vice-chairperson of Ben Gurion’s board of governors. Lubner is an honorary life member of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

    ‘Surprised’
    Troen told the M&G he was “surprised” that a “water purification project that is of manifest benefit to South Africans and an academic cooperation of 20 years’ standing between two institutions” should be questioned. He said the proposed boycott was reprehensible. “It is understandable that South Africans should interpret other societies in terms of their own experiences, but the apartheid metaphor is a fallacy.”

    Petition signatory Salim Vally, a senior researcher in UJ’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, said: “RAU played a particular role in cooperating with apartheid. It was on the wrong side of history then and we don’t want UJ to be on the wrong side now.”

    The university’s SRC president, Emmanuel Mapheto, echoed this: “We cannot allow our institution to partner BGU. What Israel is doing in Palestine amounts to apartheid,” he said.

    The senate unanimously resolved that a nine-member committee, led by UJ deputy vice-chancellor Adam Habib, should make recommendations on the matter to the senate within three months.

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