New pressure on UJ to sever Israel ties

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Unisa vice-chancellor Barney Pityana and author Breyten Breytenbach have added their voices to calls for the University of Johannesburg to sever academic ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The cooperation between the two universities dates from the 1980s, when the local partner was called Rand Afrikaans University. The agreement now under fire involves scientific interaction and was signed in August last year, renewing a controversial apartheid-era collaboration, its critics say.

On Wednesday next week UJ’s senate will hear recommendations on the future of the university’s ties with Ben-Gurion.

The Mail & Guardian reported in May that the senate had debated the matter then and had asked a senate subcommittee headed by deputy vice-chancellor Adam Habib to make recommendations within three months.

“We have concluded our deliberations and arrived at recommendations,” Habib told the M&G. “It has taken a long time because the matter is highly contested. And I can’t say what our senate will decide.”

Tutu, Pityana and Breytenbach are recent signatories to an online petition launched after the May senate meeting. It calls for “the suspension of UJ’s agreement with Ben-Gurion” and this week had notched up nearly 200 signatories.

Law professor John Dugard, theologian Allan Boesak, ANC stalwart Kader Asmal, struggle veteran and language-rights expert Neville Alexander, poet Antjie Krog, former Freedom of Expression Institute director Jane Duncan and Wits University sociologist Ran Greenstein are among other recent additions to the petition.

Leading the fight to retain ties with Ben-Gurion is the South African Associates of Ben-Gurion University, whose chairperson, Herby Rosenberg, told the M&G he had thought the senate meeting in question would be held late in October and he would “need to make inquiries” before commenting.

His organisation’s president, Bertie Lubner, was on a plane and unavailable, he said. The associates arranged that local advocate David Unter-halter and Ben-Gurion professor Ilan Troen argue in the May senate meeting for retaining ties with UJ, the M&G reported at the time.

The petition’s signatories come from a range of local universities and identify themselves as “the academic community of South Africa, a country with a history of brute racism on the one hand and both academic acquiescence and resistance to it on the other”.

“The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has had disastrous effects on access to education for Palestinians,” the petition reads.

“While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintainingthe occupation.”

By virtue of its ties with the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the arms industry, Ben-Gurion “structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation”, the petition says.

One example of its “complicity is its agreement with the IDF to provide full university qualification to army pilots within a special [Ben-Gurion] programme,” it says.

The petition calls on UJ’s senate to suspend the relationship with Ben-Gurion until, “as a minimum”, Israel “adheres to international law and … as did some South African universities during the struggle against South African apartheid, openly declares itself against the occupation and withdraws all privileges for the soldiers who enforce it”.

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