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November 25, 2019 1:07 pm

Africa’s Top University Decisively Rejects Call to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions

avatar by Ben Cohen

A pro-Israel march in Cape Town in 2018. Photo: SAFI.

An overwhelming majority in the Senate of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa has rejected a long-standing proposal to endorse an academic boycott of the State of Israel, in a decision that was hailed by Jewish leaders and denounced by Palestinian solidarity activists in equal measure.

At the vote on Friday, 68 percent of the 363 members of the senate opposed a resolution that would have pledged UCT — one of Africa’s most prestigious universities — “not enter 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.”

Pro-boycott activists had been pushing the resolution since 2017, and Friday’s vote finally drew a line under the matter, after nearly three years of procedural wrangling and bitter political campaigning involving UCT’s Senate and governing Council.

The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) commended UCT in a statement on Monday “for firmly rejecting a motion to boycott Israeli academic institutions.”

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“We thank the Senate for standing up to this campaign of hate and asserting the importance of academic freedom over narrow political agendas,” Rowan Polovin — the national chairman of the SAZF — said. “The academic boycott campaign against Israel was driven by the antisemitic BDS movement and loomed over the University for almost three years. Its goal was to single out and isolate the one and only Jewish state for unfair sanction and discrimination. The campaign consumed a disproportionate amount of airtime at the Academic Freedom Committee, Senate and Council at the expense of more relevant and important issues for UCT. Its repudiation sends a strong message that freedom of academic enquiry without limitation is essential for academic freedom to thrive.”

The influential pro-Palestinian lobby in South Africa reacted to the decision furiously, with one organization at UCT claiming that the Senate had been swayed by powerful and wealthy “Zionists.”

The decision was “a clear indication of the persisting conservatism of UCT and the fact that UCT, and the vice-chancellor in particular, is beholden to its donors and the Zionist lobby,” a statement from Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF) at UCT asserted.

And in a separate statement, Bram Hanekom  — a spokesperson for BDS South Africa — said his campaign would continue to call for academic institutions to cut ties with the “apartheid Israeli state until it respects international law.“

In rejecting the proposal to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the UCT Senate also encouraged faculty “to establish positive academic links with Palestinian academic institutions and individuals, with financial and logistical assistance from the UCT.”

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