/ 6 May 2024

Against scholasticide in Gaza

Explosion At A United Nations Run School In Gaza City
Palestinians inspect the damage after an explosion at a United Nations-run school in Gaza City August 13, 2020. (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The death toll in Gaza has passed 34,000 and 12,500 of the dead are children. Israeli air strikes have also struck Rafah, the most densely populated refugee camp in the world killing 13 people, including nine children. Among those killed are 5,479 students, 261 teachers, three university presidents, and 95 university professors. The United Nations has expressed grave concern over ongoing scholasticide in the region defining  “the systemic obliteration of education through the arrest, detention or killing of teachers, students and staff, and the destruction of educational infrastructure”.

What is to be done to stop this genocidal war on Gaza and the accompanying decimation of education? What is the role of educational institutions, scholars and staff here in South Africa as we witness this scholasticide and educide? And, what is our role when we are confronted with knowledge about academic collaborations not only with individual academics with contractual research agreements with Israeli universities, but also with members of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF)? Conscientious people around the world are trying to find answers to the first question. The second has been on the minds of educationists and young people horrified by the educide in Gaza. Many of us at the University of Cape Town especially faced the last question — late last year — when an article was published identifying UCT as the  African university with the biggest number of collaborations  with Israeli academics.  

The treatment of Palestinian people and the destruction of their country and way of life is arguably the longest, most persistent, visible and ongoing colonial occupation of our time. From the time of the Balfour Declaration, through to the 2023-24 ground invasion of Gaza, there have been more than 200 United Nations resolutions related to Palestine, most highlighting the plight of Palestinian refugees, the illegality of Israeli settlements in Gaza and West Bank; the war crimes committed by the IDFe and calls for peace and humanitarian aid. As we academics from multiple faculties, of different racial backgrounds and faiths grappled with this history, the unfolding atrocities in Gaza and new knowledge about ongoing research collaborations  in our university, we turned to calls from Palestinian civil society, opinions of leading South African legal scholars and, of course, drew wisdom from South Africa’s own anti-apartheid struggle.

For two decades, Palestinian civil society has advocated for “a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions for their deep and persistent complicity in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights that are stipulated in International law”. Such an institutional boycott does not constitute cancelation of, non-cooperation with or discrimination against individuals due to views they might hold or identity (race, religion, caste, class, gender or citizenship) they might embody. It does however call for non-cooperation and even boycott in academic, research or development projects sponsored by Israel, complicit Israeli institutions, lobby groups or corporations. 

When consulted on the matter in 2019, Professor John Dugard SC, legal luminary and leading member of South Africa’s team at International Court of Justice (ICJ) advised that in the context of Israel’s many war crimes and persistent violations of human rights, UCT would be acting in accordance with South African Constitution and law if it “distanced itself from these criminal acts,” and decided “not to enter into relations with Israeli universities”.

When consulted more recently in 2024 on the issue of collaborations with members of the IDF, Dugard noted that Israel continues to commit plausibly genocidal acts in Gaza. It has failed to carry out its obligations imposed by the ICJ. “It is difficult to imagine,” he writes, “a situation in which a university of any state, particularly of a state that has brought proceedings against a wrongdoing state could continue to have relations with researchers that serve in the army of a State found to be plausibly committing genocide.” 

Dugard notes that the university is not legally obliged to sever its relations with such researchers but, in his words, “there is … a moral obligation which no self-respecting university can ignore”.

These moral obligations have guided us as we came together to put forward three resolutions in the wake of the war on Gaza. We were also guided by the historical imperative to “pay forward” the support that South Africans received from Palestine and other countries around the world during the struggle against apartheid. Recent research that rigorously details the direct and active complicity of Israeli universities in the country’s violent apartheid rule further informed our thinking. 

Canada-based Israeli scholar Maya Wind writes, “Israeli university campuses were designed and built as anchors of Palestinian land expropriation and dispossession. They continue to put their facilities, resources, and departments in service of the Israeli state through producing expertise for military governance, training soldiers and security state personnel to hone their operations, and developing technologies and weapons used against Palestinians.”

Against this backdrop, the first resolution called for a boycott of all activities, agreements and projects involving Israeli academic institutions, research entities, lobby groups, corporations, foundations, academic forums and entities that accept funding from Israel.

 The opposition to the motion came from some academics in the university senate particularly those looking to protect their own scientific  interests. Filibustering in the senate, scare tactics and panic mongering through emails, and cyber harassment followed. Proposers of the motion were personally harassed. 

Failing in these tactics, these academics called upon other academics to abstain from the vote on the motion lest they lose their research funding from countries such as the United States and European states that reject the boycott of and divestment from Israeli institutions. In doing so, these academics ignored legal opinion that emphasises the inapplicability of US laws to South African institutions, and failed to defend their own academic freedom — freedom to do the right thing, by refusing collaboration with Israeli institutions complicit in crimes against humanity.

The first motion was defeated by a narrow margin after a fraught and difficult meeting held on 8 March  and voting in the following week, with these senators seeking to delay the passing of this motion at all costs.

Israel’s war on Gaza has amplified the need for academic freedom. In the current moment, scholasticide and educide in Palestine are the most violent infringements of academic freedom imaginable. Academic freedom is also under attack in leading universities of the Global North — from Harvard and Columbia Universities in the US to Cologne in Germany. 

Defence of academic freedom is at the heart of the second resolution that we proposed. In Palestine, in a high profile-action, a world-renown scholar of trauma, state crimes, gender and genocide, Professor Shalhoub Kervokian, a citizen of Israel, was summarily dismissed by her university for speaking out against Israeli actions and the media distortions, reinstated after an apology and then promptly arrested for incitement by the Israeli police, in an action described by her lawyers as “an illegal arrest whose purpose is to intimidate any critical voices in the Israeli academy”. 

In Germany, a university rector was detained at the German border and told he is not free to speak in Germany about his direct experience of treating casualties in Gaza. In South Africa, at UCT, one academic opposed to the boycott of Israeli universities equated citing the BBC regarding news information as evidence of anti-Semitism while another alleged that the very motion to refuse collaborations with the Israel Defence Forces is anti-Semitic.

Like the actions of many university administrations in the Global North, both statements made by UCT academics are informed by a definition of anti-Semitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which, in its illustrations, couples Jewish identity inextricably with the state of Israel, equating any criticism of the Israeli state with hatred of a people. 

The second resolution we proposed thus sought to affirm the call for ceasefire and humanitarian aid in Gaza; condemn the destruction of the education sector in Gaza; and, critically, reject the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which is driving infringements of academic freedom around the world. 

The IHRA definition has been variously critiqued, including by Israeli and Jewish scholars of the history of the Holocaust, for weaponising anti-Zionism, and precluding the legitimacy of resistance to Israeli occupation. During debate the original proposal was enhanced through an amendment that offered instead the definition contained in the Jerusalem Declaration. Signed by scholars of Jewish history, including the chair of UCT’s Kaplan Center, the Jerusalem Declaration definition does not link anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.  

The third resolution returned to the problem of collaboration with Israeli institutions — specifically, the IDF. It asked UCT to publicly disassociate itself from IDF members and members of the Israeli military establishment.

The debate and voting on these two motions took place on 19 April. In contrast to the debates on the first motion weeks earlier, and despite attempts by a cluster of academics to prevent progress of the debate, both motions were passed. 

Amendments were debated and agreed upon in a more measured and civil way, inordinate delays were avoided, and the two resolutions passed by wide margins to loud cheers and smiles in the senate. By passing these two motions, the UCT senate has resolved to act in accordance with the Constitution and law, resolved to uphold academic freedom and refused to maintain and foster relations with a force and establishment that is involved in genocidal actions. It has, in its own small way, sought to act against scholasticide in Gaza. 

We fervently hope that mass death and atrocities in Gaza cease, humanitarian aid reaches those who need it, Israel and the rest of the world comes to recognise Palestinian people’s right to life, equality and dignity, and they get the chance to rebuild their world from the rubble that it has been reduced to.