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Proposed Israel Boycott at Top South African University Would Hit ‘Poor Black Students Disproportionately,’ Education Campaigner Says

avatar by Shiri Moshe

Members of Africans for Peace make the peace sign during a 2016 visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo: Africans for Peace

A South African activist who seeks improved access to higher education for black students has denounced an ongoing campaign at the University of Cape Town to implement an academic boycott of Israel, saying it would deprive disadvantaged communities of critical opportunities.

Klaas Mokgomole — a member of the group Africans for Peace — spoke to The Algemeiner on Wednesday about efforts by UCT’s Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF) to bar the university from engaging with its counterparts in Israel. The matter will be considered by UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee, Senate, and Council, with the first vote of three taking place this Thursday.

Mokgomole explained that he works to help students “have the best access to universities to help bring them out of poverty,” which he noted stems from the racist policies enacted by the apartheid regime in South Africa between 1948 and 1994.

“Recently there have been countrywide protests focused on the price of tuition excluding students from the university,” he said. “A boycott of Israeli universities would cut off students from opportunities to study and disrupt research areas necessary to the development of our country.”

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“In essence, we are being asked to support a motion which [does] not [have] to do with our continent, but that will affect poor black students disproportionately,” Mokgomole added. “Essentially this is an anti-black motion.”

Mokgomole — a former supporter of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement who reconsidered his views after visiting Israel — wrote in a 2016 briefing published by Africans for Peace, “BDS encourages you to hate every Jew in the world, see the worst in them, and label them as oppressors, killers, and land thieves. An organization that pushes such ugly indoctrination clearly wants to intimidate the Jewish community.”

“As a former BDS activist, I encourage those involved in BDS to not blindly believe everything the movement says — because if you accept their propaganda uncritically, you are not contributing to peace, but to further needless bloodshed,” he continued.

A UCT student who spoke to The Algemeiner on Wednesday echoed Mokgomole’s concerns, noting that while the “campus has shown antisemitism and bias towards Jewish students over the years, …the singling out of Israel and alienation of Jewish and Zionist students has reached new heights with the proposed Israel boycott.”

The student asked to remain anonymous, as “BDS is ruthless and the climate in South Africa is very anti-Israel.”

The student recounted that during the university’s latest Israel Apartheid Week, an annual demonstration that has been criticized for demonizing the Jewish state and its supporters, “students were shamed for wearing the Star of David, and old stereotypes of Jews and money were thrown around.”

“A member of PSF said that there is no such thing as a poor Jew in South Africa and Jews fund all the wars,” the student added. The student also highlighted an incident from March of this year, when members of the group Black First Land First (BLF) accosted a member of the South African Union of Jewish Students at UCT for “stealing land from the Palestinians” and for “killing Palestinians.” During the attack, which was caught on video, the BLF members shouted, “Hitler should have killed all of you, you thieves.” When asked why they assaulted their victim, the BLF members said it was because his shirt included the word “Jewish.”

While BLF — which supports BDS — first said it was not aware of the incident, it condemned antisemitism after being presented with video evidence.

The student criticized UCT’s response to these incidents, saying that after several complaints were filed with the university’s discrimination office about antisemitism on campus, Vice Chancellor Max Price simply sent a mass email urging students to “exercise tolerance” and avoid thoughtlessly using labels like “racist” or “anti-Semite.”

The student also lamented “the obvious hypocrisy of calling for a boycott against Israel, whilst not mentioning any other countries.”

“As a feminist, I abhor Saudi Arabia for their treatment of women as slaves, but I would never call for an academic boycott against Saudi Arabia, namely because all that means is a boycott against ideas and academics rather than regimes,” the student went on to say.

The student pointed out that the call was even more “bizarre” as “UCT’s technology in their libraries are largely Israeli.” The university, like many others worldwide, has used the ALEPH system in its libraries since 1999. The software is developed by the Ex Libris Group, which is headquartered in Jerusalem, Israel.

The financial toll of replacing that software and cutting ties with Israeli academia, as well as the expected loss of funding by pro-Israel supporters of the university, would be “detrimental” and further lower UCT’s research ranking, the student emphasized.

Despite similar objections from some UCT community members, PSF has stood by its call for an academic boycott, writing on Tuesday, “By adopting the academic boycott, UCT would be taking a principled stand against the human rights abuses committed by Israeli universities, and would effectively be placing pressure on Israeli universities, and ultimately the Israeli state, to stop violating the human rights of Palestinians, while inspiring other universities to take a similar stance.”

Members of Concerned Citizens for Academic Freedom at UCT, consisting of concerned students, parents and alumni who reject PSF’s claims, launched a petition on Wednesday, saying “the implementation of a wholesale academic boycott against Israel violates the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, guaranteed in Section 16 of the South African Constitution and which are fundamental to the undertaking of education and research.”

“Additionally, we are concerned that despite there being a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, there is a dangerous convergence,” they stated, before calling on administrators to recognize “that the primary source of the harassment, intimidation, suppression of speech and ethnic discrimination of Jewish students originate from the pejorative activities of these student groups who do not make this differentiation.”

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