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UCT Israeli academic boycott decision branded ‘shameful’ and symbolic of contemporary SA politics

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The University of Cape Town’s Senate has rescinded its March vote in favour of a proposal for the tertiary institution to not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in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 those territories. The decision has been slammed by human rights advocates and supporters of the Palestinian struggle for justice as “shameful” and an “indictment” of the university’s support for oppressed people the world over.


“It’s a giant break of faith and is quite inexplicable. It just shows how the Zionist propaganda lobby has been working overtime to intimidate the academic intellectual elite of UCT…Quite clearly Israel is an apartheid state by any definition…” said Alan Horwitz of South African Jews for a Free Palestine.

“For UCT to back-peddle on their initial decision, as partial as it was, is a terrible blow and a real indictment on the notion of academic freedom and support for oppressed peoples.”

Horwitz says Israeli universities – whether they operate in the 1948 borders or beyond – are committed to the occupation of Palestine and assist the Israeli military in terms of search and support, while also subscribing to a Zionist ideology which is widely understood to be exclusivist. He believes there was a lot of pressure from the Zionist lobby on UCT, with the lobby asserting that UCT would suffer financially and that they would pressure Jewish philanthropists into not supporting the university ‘because they [UCT] are anti-Semitic’.

However, Horwitz condemned the equating of being anti-Zionist to antisemitic by explaining that “To be anti-semetic is racist but to be anti-zionist is to be progressive.”

“The progressive community must really take this up with UCT and students at UCT should not take this lying down…For the UCT Senate to fall for this is soddy…it shows how in South Africa we’ve lost our moral and political bearings.”

“For UCT to have taken a step back from the concrete support for the struggle is shameful,“ he said.

In a statement, the South African Zionist Federation commended UCT’s Senate for standing up to what it called a “campaign of hate”. It said the motion asserted the importance of academic freedom over “narrow political agendas”.

“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,” said Rowan Polovin, national chairman of the South African Zionist Federation.

“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 academic boycott was well supported among South African academics and Jewish activists. In September, a number of high-profile Jewish academics and activists wrote a letter stating that the opponents of the academic boycott have used “backdoor fearmongering about the withdrawal of private funding to cripple the institution”. Among the signatories was former minister Ronnie Kasrils, scholar Raymond Suttner and political commentator Steven Friedman.

VOC News contacted UCT’s Palestine Solidarity Forum – which led the charge for the academic boycott – however, no representative was available for comment. The PSF was quoted in the Cape Times as saying 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”.

“It sets a remarkably dangerous precedent that donors can dictate university policy – an affront to and violation of academic freedom; one of which UCT heroes of academic freedom, such as TB Davie, would be ashamed,” the PSF said.


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