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March 22, 2019 5:02 pm

University of Cape Town to Hold Final Vote on Academic Boycott of Israel Later This Month

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The University of Cape Town campus. Photo: Adrian Frith via Wikimedia Commons.

The University of Cape Town, the top-ranking academic institution in Africa, is set to consider enforcing an academic boycott against Israel later this month.

The UCT Senate, a decision-making body comprised primarily of professors and administrators, endorsed a proposal on March 15 to bar the university from entering into any formal relationship with Israeli academic institutions that operate “in the occupied Palestinian territories,” or otherwise enable “gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories,” the university said in a statement.

Sources familiar with the matter told The Algemeiner that the vote was 62 in favor and 43 against, with 10 abstentions and one void ballot.

The motion will now be considered by the University Council, the highest governing body at UCT, when it next meets on March 30.

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The development marks the latest in a years-long effort by South Africa’s boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) lobby, led at UCT by the Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF), to advance an academic boycott of Israel. Supporters say the move is motivated by a desire to pressure Israel to comply with international law, and more broadly correct a historical injustice inflicted on Palestinians by Israel’s creation. Critics, including the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and major Jewish groups worldwide, have strongly denounced the BDS campaign for rejecting the legitimacy of a Jewish nation-state anywhere in the Levant and often advancing anti-Jewish tropes.

The campaign has a strong foothold on South African campuses, with “Israel Apartheid Week” activities planned to take place at multiple universities early next month. Last year, the country’s ruling African National Congress said it was “actively participating” in IAW to express solidarity with the “heroic people of Palestine.”

PSF’s campaign was first launched during 2017 IAW, when the group called for a full boycott of Israeli academic institutions — as mandated by the official guidelines of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) — in a memorandum to UCT’s vice chancellor. The matter was subsequently referred to UCT’s Senate Executive Committee (SEC), which reports to the Council, and then the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC).

After multiple meetings debating the PSF proposal starting in August 2017, the AFC issued a recommendation to the UCT Senate Executive Committee (SEC) rejecting the full boycott and instead calling for a “limiting measure” — described as “not an Academic Boycott per se” — that would bar UCT from entering into “any formal relationships with academic institutions operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

The SEC rejected this recommendation in November 2017, reportedly expressing concern that it lacked clear terminology and would violate academic freedom while raising questions over inconsistent application — specifically, that UCT was targeting Israeli academia while maintaining ties with universities in other countries involved in territorial disputes and accused of international law violations.

The rejection rankled the AFC, which subsequently held a special joint meeting this past April with the SEC to consider AFC’s proposal. In late November, the Senate ultimately considered the original PSF proposal for a full boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

According to minutes of the Senate debate, opponents argued that the university should not take part in a political campaign, particularly one that singles out one side of a complex conflict without addressing any actions by the other. “[The] University would be called on to answer why it had chosen to single out academic institutions in Israel for a boycott and not others,” when numerous universities that UCT has agreements with are based in countries accused of human rights violations, they noted. Concerns were also raised about the damaging effects the boycott could have on individual academic freedom, and the restrictions it would place on UCT from entering into multinational agreements that include Israeli institutions.

Supporters of the boycott said it was “neither fair nor practical” to argue that UCT had to take action against all countries equally, and cited the isolation of apartheid-era South African universities as an effective model. They also claimed that academic freedom arguments could be used to evade action on contentious issues and “implement meaningful transformation.”

“Remaining silent and not taking action against what was occurring in this conflict could be equally as damaging and divisive as a boycott,” one argument held, according to the minutes.

A majority of Senate members subsequently voted via secret ballot against the PSF boycott motion, by a margin of 73 to 37 with 12 abstentions.

At the same meeting, however, the Senate agreed to debate the AFC’s “limiting measure” proposal when it reconvened in 2019 — a measure it endorsed last week. The agenda for this latest meeting included several materials in support of the AFC motion, and no documents critical of it. The South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) said it was not contacted to provide a counter-argument, and that its request to submit material to the agenda challenging the AFC recommendation was denied.

Critics including the SAJBD and South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) have described the various proposals to cut ties with Israeli universities as immoral, politicized threats to academic freedom and the process surrounding their consideration opaque and one-sided.

“The boycott campaign at UCT has further been characterised by gross procedural unfairness against SAUJS, which has strenuously campaigned against the initiative,” wrote Cape SAJBD chairperson Rael Kaimowitz and SAZF Cape Council chairperson Rowan Polovin on Wednesday. “Time and again, SAUJS has found itself side-lined, denied an equal opportunity to present its case, left in the dark about crucial upcoming developments and in general placed at a serious disadvantage vis-à-vis the boycott lobby.”

“The reputational damage that UCT will most likely suffer, along with possible threats to external funding, could have a disastrous impact on its ability to maintain its standing as Africa’s foremost institution of higher learning,” they continued, before warning that the Senate decision was “grossly discriminatory.”

“Why should UCT have chosen to single out Israeli universities when there are territorial disputes around the world and countries with appalling human rights records about whom nothing is said?” Kaimowitz and Polovin asked. “It would be far more fitting for UCT to adhere to the principles of academic freedom instead of pandering to those with an extreme anti-Israel agenda who are more interested in vilification than resolution to a complex geopolitical conflict.”

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