Boycott of Israeli varsities is counter to academic freedom




Every so often, certain South Africans of Jewish origin feel the need to announce to the world that they condemn and distance themselves from the State of Israel and its supposedly unjust treatment of the Palestinians.

The latest instance of this was an open letter supporting “the Academic Boycott of Israeli Universities Enabling the Occupation” that was sent last week to the senate of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT), which is considering such a resolution.

READ MORE: For justice: SA Jews support the academic boycott of Israeli universities

Counting the number of signatories, one finds that 65 people put their names to the letter. An online petition against the boycott being run by the South African Zionist Federation has garnered just under 65 000 signatures — a proportion of 1 000 to one.

Even taking into account the fact that many of these will have come from outside the Jewish community, a considerable proportion, amounting to many thousands, will have done so. While the “open letter” is in part clearly aimed at creating the perception that South African Jewry is somehow profoundly divided over the Israel-Palestine question, this statistic alone should be enough to dispel such a notion.

There are other indicators of Jewish South Africans’ views of this question. One would be the unambiguous standpoint of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Another would be the results of two surveys by UCT’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research. Both surveys showed that whereas close to 90% of respondents expressed strong or moderate support for Israel, only 1% expressed negative feelings.

There can thus be no doubt that the majority of South African Jews are opposed to the proposed singling out of Israeli academic institutions for punitive action.

For starters, such a proposal is based on a distorted, propagandistic interpretation of the Israel-Palestine issue that no thoughtful person can take seriously. One would expect academics to be the first to see through this kind of thing. They are aware that no academically sound analysis of such phenomena is possible without rigorous fact-checking, due regard to nuance and context and, above all, taking into account competing claims and weighing up their respective merits vis-à-vis one another.

In view of this, it is puzzling that so obviously politicised and unscholarly a proposal has been allowed to gain any traction at UCT.

Even if Israel was, objectively speaking, the despicable human rights violator its enemies make it out to be, it would not justify boycotting its academic institutions. Such a move would constitute discrimination. There is no reasonable justification for singling out Israel and Israeli academia for boycotts over and above those of other countries similarly accused of repressing their inhabitants or occupying foreign territories.

Insisting that UCT boycott Israeli institutions said to be complicit in human rights violations would require it to apply a standard that it does not apply to any other institution it has ties with. It would be equivalent to boycotting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for getting money from the same government that invaded Iraq, or boycotting Moscow University because many of its graduates participate in Russia’s occupation of the Crimea.

Then there is the academic freedom aspect. Academic boycott measures of any form against any country are intrinsically repugnant to the ideals of the university as a space for the free expression and exchange of ideas.

It is, moreover, impossible to boycott a university on an institutional level without also boycotting the scholars who form part of it. Such practices are rooted in a “collective guilt” approach that is unscholarly and iniquitous.

The imposition of such a boycott by UCT would thus inevitably limit and adversely affect academic freedom, with all the negative reputational consequences that come with it. That the open letter insists that adopting a boycott would “safeguard the university’s academic freedom and autonomy” reveals the Orwellian depths to which the radical anti-Israel lobby is willing to descend in order to stand reality on its head.

That the boycott campaign seeks to exclude Israeli Jews — and only Israeli Jews — from the scholarly life of humanity should also be of concern. In practice, if arguably not always in intent, such a policy amounts to anti-Jewish discrimination, and the signatures of a few dozen dissidents of Jewish origin who see no problem with this does not make it less so.

In short, imposing an academic boycott against Israel — and against Israel only — would flout the very tenets of academic freedom and freedom of speech upon which the struggle for liberation in South Africa was waged, particularly at universities.

The world over, universities with long and distinguished records of human rights activism have rejected such a boycott as immoral and in violation of fundamental academic norms and values. It would be a sad day were UCT to fail to do likewise.

David Saks is the associate director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies

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David Saks
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