/ 25 March 2011

More universities to query Israeli links as UJ severs ties

Links between other South African universities and their counterparts in Israel are now likely to come under the scrutiny of boycott campaigners, following the University of Johannesburg’s landmark decision on Wednesday to sever ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.

UJ research professor Steven Friedman told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday that “there is a discussion developing” at the University of Cape Town (UCT). “Colleagues there tell me that the question of links has come up,” he said.

UCT denied having any institutional links with Israeli universities. Muhammed Desai of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Working Group, said that he, too, had learned that a university in the province “may have links to a university in Israel”.

Brenda Stern, spokesperson of the South African Associates of Ben-Gurion, told the Times newspaper that “we will continue our projects with other, more important universities in the country.” However, she refused to confirm to the M&G that Ben-Gurion had links with other South African institutions. The organisation’s president, Bertie Lubner, said it had nothing to say on the matter at present.

UJ’s decision to cut ties comes six months after 400 prominent South Africans, including John Dugard and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, signed a petition calling on UJ to cut its ties with Ben-Gurion, claiming it was assisting the Israeli military. The university then gave the Israeli institution six months to meet two conditions: that Ben-Gurion draw up an agreement for joint research with a Palestinian university, chosen with the involvement of UJ, and that UJ “will not engage in any activities with Ben-Gurion that have direct or indirect military implications”.

The UJ senate decided this week that the conditions had not been met. In October last year, following the UJ senate resolution, Duma Malaza, chief executive of the university heads’ representative body, Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), said that it was “likely” that the heads would discuss the issue of Ben-Gurion at their next meeting. But Malaza said this week that this discussion did not take place.

“I indicated at the time that Hesa might discuss the issue if it is raised by one of its members,” he said. “This did not happen. Such issues are generally regarded as being of an institutional nature as they are informed by specific institutional values and strategic priorities. The issue was, indeed, finalised by the senate and council of UJ.”

In a press statement on Thursday Ben-Gurion said it regretted UJ’s decision, adding: “Peace will happen only when there is a dialogue between all of the people of the region. 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.”

Last week the UJ petition committee released a fact-finding report on Ben-Gurion University’s links to the Israeli military, which claimed that Ben-Gurion is still enmeshed with the Israeli defence force and shows no sign of loosening these bonds. It says that during Operation Cast Lead, in which 1 400 Palestinians were killed, Ben-Gurion “offered scholarships and extra tuition to students who served in active combat units” and “offered a special grant for each day of service to students who went on reserve duty”.

In addition, the report claims that Ben-Gurion “aids and provides academic scholarships and has official protocols for providing support to army reservist students”. It had allegedly also initiated the idea of, and tendered for, a military medicine school designed to train medical staff for the Israeli armed forces.

The report said Ben-Gurion is participating in a project supported by the Israeli government involving the construction of a park that would house the intelligence, communications and training bases of the Israeli defence force.

The university was also a feeder institution for Israel’s nuclear research programme, the report alleges, with graduates serving as interns in the Israeli government’s nuclear plant in Dimona “suspected of being engaged in the production of nuclear weapons, including material for thermonuclear warheads”. Stern described the report’s findings as “absolute rubbish”.