/ 10 May 2011

UJ’s decision was to show solidarity with the oppressed

Debate about the boycott of Israeli academic institutions has been marked by misunderstandings about the University of Johannesburg’s position. As a proponent of the motion adopted by UJ’s senate, perhaps I can provide some clarification. I do so as somebody who, in Britain, was actively involved in campaigning for a boycott of South African universities in the 1970s and 1980s.

UJ’s position was determined by a senate vote. Most members of this body are senior professors who are expected to raise funds for research and develop international partnerships, so we sympathised with colleagues who were engaged in water research with collaborators at Ben-Gurion University (BGU).

Before our meeting we received about 20 documents prepared by university committees and interested parties, including BGU. The debate lasted well over two hours — the most serious in my 12 years at UJ. Whatever the merits of the outcome, nobody complained about the process. It showed institutional maturity and the decision we took reflected ongoing demographic transformation. This was university decision-making at its best.

The majority view was that professors cannot remain aloof from the long-term interests of their institution or the wellbeing of society at large. Under apartheid academics claimed they were apolitical, but those days are over.

Our stance was political, not moral. We confirmed a resolution with a preamble that stated simply: “In support of the principle of solidarity with any oppressed population (a defining principle emanating from our own history), we [UJ] should take [guidance] — from peer institutions among the Palestinian population.” We then, in effect, set two tests.

First, could BGU find a Palestinian university to partner UJ in water research (which is important for most Palestinians)? The answer was “no”. And no Palestinian vice-chancellor or academic representative supported a continuation of the UJ-BGU agreement.

Second, could we verify claims by pro-boycott Palestinians that BGU research supported the Israeli military? The answer was “yes”. Moreover, the UJ delegation that visited Israel/Palestine was disappointed that BGU was not being proactive in rectifying Palestinians’ historical disadvantages.

To the best of my recollection, nobody in our senate contested the fact that Palestinians were oppressed as a people. Task-team members who visited the West Bank spoke of the daily inhuman and brutal treatment of Palestinians.

Had our position been based on moral criteria, we could reasonably be accused of inconsistency or hypocrisy. Oppression exists elsewhere in the world and is sometimes worse. Other universities engage in military research (including, presumably, some in South Africa). We are asked: why not boycott Chinese universities or Harvard?

Struggles against oppression take different forms, with different demands for solidarity. To my knowledge there has been no call from the people of China to boycott its universities. There have been, though, requests to support Chinese clothing workers by boycotting particular brands and I hope UJ would respond positively to such an appeal.

There are differences between Israel today and South Africa under apartheid, but there are similarities too: one is academic boycotts as a form of solidarity. Such boycotts against South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s helped delegitimate the apartheid regime, placed pressure on the British government and boosted the morale of anti-apartheid fighters. This is what worries supporters of the Israeli government today.

Then, as now, solidarity is vital. Leaders of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign have made it clear they would like to see an end to official relationships that give legitimacy to Israeli institutions. They have no objection to individual academic contact.

UJ scholars involved in this affair can sustain fruitful relationships with BGU. BGU will withdraw funding, but this is a relatively small amount, about R1million a year. The academics involved are world-class scientists: they will find alternative benefactors. And we should not overstate the role of scientists in solving problems such as water shortages. In South Africa these are part of the general crisis of service delivery.

In the debate since our decision, it has been sad to see supporters of the Israeli government maligning particular individuals. Desmond Tutu and other signatories of the UJ petition were condemned by BGU as “external agitators”. In the M&G, David Hirsh dismissed our vice-chancellor as a “spin doctor”, implying a lack of principle and honesty.

Hirsh’s view that UJ is “legitimising an anti-Semitic boycott” and “incubating anti-Semitic ways of thinking” smacks of a man who is losing an argument. For myself, I am proud to have spent half a century opposing racism, including anti-Semitism. And I am proud to be part of a university that has taken a principled stand in providing solidarity with the oppressed.

Peter Alexander is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg and holds the South African research chair in social change