Complex debate on UCT’s Israel boycott




Since the tabling of the Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF) proposal on the academic boycott of Israeli institutions with the academic freedom committee at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on June 14 2017, there has been much written in the media space about the ensuing debate. Many of the reports contained factual inaccuracies. Missing in these reports has been an account of circumstances under which decisions were made at UCT, the decisions made, and which arguments were put forward to sway the house one way or the other.

Given the complexity of the issues surfaced through the PSF proposal, the matter stayed on the academic freedom committee’s agenda over several meetings. Both the PSF and the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) were afforded an opportunity to present to the committee.

Committee members were also sent documents from various bodies (both local and international) either in support of or opposed to the proposed boycott. After considering the substantive issues raised in the PSF submission and concerns raised by SAUJS and others, the committee summarised three principles as core to the argument for or against the proposed boycott:

  • Any action envisaged should target specifically those elements of the Israeli academic institutions that are in violation of international law;
  • Academic freedom is substantively preserved; and
  • The course of action should not violate any South African constitutional rights.

After several iterations in the committee, a resolution was prepared and tabled with the senate.

The committee’s resolution was discussed at the senate meeting of March 15 this year and endorsed with minor editorial changes. The March resolution of senate was: “UCT will not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

This resolution was submitted to the council on March 30. Contrary to what has been inaccurately reported in some media reports, the council did not reject this senate resolution. Instead, it elected not to adopt the resolution. It was the view of council that several issues required clarification, including a full assessment of the financial impact of the resolution, and that a more consultative process was necessary before the matter could be considered any further.

The council also, and separately, elected to formulate its own statement, and resolved to:

  • Reaffirm its commitment to supporting the rights and freedoms of all people as universally recognised under international law;
  • Condemn any acts that violate those rights and freedoms;
  • Condemn the atrocities and human rights violations perpetrated in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and elsewhere in the world;
  • Call on all academics and academic institutions to support this resolution; and
  • Reaffirm UCT’s commitment to academic freedom but reserve the right to dissociate itself from those academics and academic institutions that support (directly or indirectly) the violation of human rights and enable the violation of human rights.

On November 22 the senate rescinded its March 15 resolution before the reports as instructed by the council were tabled before itself or the council. The rescind motion was a second attempt after two motions aimed at rescission were withdrawn at the last minute at a previous meeting. The withdrawal was as a result of a legal opinion penned by John Dugard, an ad-hoc judge at the International Court of Justice in the Hague and emeritus professor of public international law at Leiden University.

Dugard confirmed that “Israel has seriously violated [the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949] by colonising the West Bank and East Jerusalem with a settlement enterprise of some 700 000 people, which, in the words of Israeli scholar Aeyal Gross, has ‘led to the dispossession of Palestinians and to discrimination against them, and are emblematic of Israel’s breach of trust entailed in the normative regime of occupation’.” He further opined that “the University of Cape Town would be acting in accordance with South African law if it were to take a decision to uphold South Africa’s international obligations and the Bill of Rights in its relations with universities in a country that egregiously violates human rights”.

Several factors played a role in the senate’s rescission of its own motion on November 22: the rescind motion itself, anecdotal evidence on the negative effect of the March senate resolution on research collaborations, and the way the senate meeting was chaired.

The rescind motion, tabled jointly by two professors, one from law and the other from health sciences, acknowledged that there was no impediment in law to UCT’s senate taking a stance on matters of academic freedom, but, equally, senate was under no legal obligation to take a position “in relation to relationships on academic matters with any individual academic, academic group, or academic institution, no matter where in the world it is situated or operates”.

While recognising that Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian Territories was indefensible, a clear violation of international law, represents a gross violation of human rights and justifies public condemnation, the proposers of the motion urged “academics at UCT to engage with and support those academic colleagues who have spoken out against unlawful occupations and gross human rights violations wherever they have occurred …”

In addition, the second proposer from health sciences, whose research is primarily in biomedical sciences and involves tuberculosis vaccine innovation, gave accounts of two examples where the March senate resolution has already placed research collaborations with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories at potential risk.

Invoking senate rules on deliberations, the chairperson gave the two proposers five minutes each to present, while two and a half minutes were allocated to all other contributions to the debate. Only one member opposed to the rescind motion protested the time allocated for counter-arguments. The chairperson agreed to afford this senate member five minutes to speak. In total, the two proposers and seven proponents to the rescind motion were allowed 27.5 minutes to speak altogether, while five members opposed to the motion were effectively allowed a total of 15 minutes.

I was one of five members of the senate who offered a counter-argument to the rescind motion. I had prepared three points to argue against the motion but could hardly get through the first point before I was cut off. The first point I wished to make was later raised by a senior health sciences professor, and further supported by another senior humanities professor. The point related to the rescind motion being premature because no new information had been provided to the senate.

My second point was to remind the senate that even as UCT often commends itself for its role in resisting apartheid, its history proves otherwise even in post-1994 South Africa. There are many instances in this regard, but the Mafeje Affair stands out.

If anything, the back-and-forth debate regarding Israeli academic institutions tells us that these formal relations are not benign. They tell the world who UCT’s friends are, and to whom the university is aligned in terms of values.

The third point I wished to make was about the claim that the March senate resolution infringed on individual rights for students and academics to move freely between South Africa and Israel.

There is no truth to this claim. In fact, what has occurred since 2014 until now at UCT, as a result of the silence regarding formal relations with Israeli academic institutions, is a de facto boycott.

My anecdotal evidence, contrary to evidence presented by the second proposer of the rescind motion, is that the senate March resolution had begun to lift this de facto boycott. The recent resumption of a student exchange programme involving the Weizmann Institute is a case in point.

Now that the senate has rescinded this motion and did so without allowing itself to read the two pending reports that the UCT council had tasked the university executive to prepare and present, only time will tell what the council will do with its own separate resolution of March 30.

It is also possible that some members of senate may feel that strict adherence to time allocated to speakers silenced important voices needed for this complex debate.

Professor Elelwani Ramugondo is chairperson of the academic freedom committee at UCT, a member of its senate and council, and interim deputy dean for postgraduate education in the health sciences faculty. She writes in her personal capacity

Elelwani Ramugondo
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