/ 24 March 2011

Ben Gurion decision will ‘hurt’ SA

The UJ’s decision to sever ties with Ben-Gurion University (BGU) and end their collaborative research will hurt South Africans, the Israeli institution said in a statement on Thursday.

“Cancelling this agreement, which was designed to solve real problems of water contamination in a reservoir near Johannesburg, will only hurt the residents of South Africa,” BGU spokesperson Faye Bittker said.

BGU president Professor Rivka Carmi echoed her sentiments: “The only losers in this decision are the people of South Africa.”

Despite the decision, BGU reaffirmed its commitment to advance academic freedom, regional cooperation and social justice through education and research, Carmi said.

The UJ announced on Wednesday it was ending its 25-year relationship with BGU on April 1 — based on its UJ Petition Committee finding “significant” evidence BGU had research and other engagements supporting Israel’s military, in particular in its occupation of Gaza.

UJ vice-chancellor Adam Habib said professors could however continue to work individually with the Israeli university.

Efforts to end ties with BGU began with the UJ Petition — a statement by UJ academics and students calling on their university to end its “apartheid-era relationship” with BGU.

The committee behind the petition claimed more than 400 South African academics, including nine vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors, had joined the campaign.

Several organisations, including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu), the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) as well as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel group welcomed the decision.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign spokesperson Salim Vally said in a statement that those who supported UJ’s ties with BGU argued that academic freedom had been compromised by this decision.

“But academic freedom does not exist outside political and moral considerations,” he said.

‘Essential cog in a racist apartheid system’
“When a university — such as BGU — is an essential cog in a racist apartheid system as it exists in Israel, when it conducts research for an occupation army whose actions have widely been labelled as war crimes and crimes against humanity … and when it participates in ensuring that academic freedom is denied to other [Palestinian] academics, then morality and human solidarity dictate that linking with such an institution makes a mockery of academic freedom,” Vally said.

“Some people have also attempted to spin the issue as if South Africa’s access to clean water depends on Israeli research. This is, firstly, a red herring, and, secondly, a racist argument,” he said.

Vally said: “As UJ’s deputy vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, has pointed out, ensuring clean water in South Africa has nothing to do with Israeli research and assistance, and has everything to do with the South African government’s investment.”

“Besides, Israel should be the last country anyone should attempt to learn from with regards to water policy.

“Amnesty International, in a damning report, has accused the Israeli government of using discriminatory water policies that deny Palestinians their right to access water,” he said.

Nehawu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla said in a statement: “We have a proud record in this country of standing up against injustice and this gesture by the university [UJ] will go a long way in demonstrating our people’s intolerance for oppression and injustice.

“Samwu encourages all other South African universities and academic institutions to refuse to deal with any institution that openly supports Israeli apartheid and or oppression of fellow human beings,” spokesperson Tahir Sema said in a statement.

Sema said a Congress of South African Trade Unions-led coalition for a free Palestine also welcomed the UJ’s decision.

It had begun discussions to work out how to give practical support to the university.

Not everyone supported the move however. The South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) expressed “deep disappointment”.

“This is indeed a sad day for academic freedom in South Africa,” chairperson Stephanie Hodes said in a statement.

“SAUJS regrets the one-sided nature of the discussion and deplores this asymmetrical treatment of Israel as being reflective of narrow political agendas, rather than a broad-based human rights culture,” she said.

“We have yet to see UJ take any action on any other university, anywhere else in the world, whose country’s foreign policy they object to.”

She said Israel was a democracy that “strictly upholds academic freedom” and pointed out the UJ was maintaining ties with Belarus, which she described as a dictatorship. – Sapa