South African University Severs Ties with Israeli Ben Gurion

West Bank Separation Barrier not built on Israeli territory but within the West Bank colony.

I generally do not support boycotts in which faculty exchanges are terminated. I have been quite critical of US policy under the Patriot Act which excluded visiting scholars and academics that were construed as “dangerous” or sympathetic to so-called terrorism. I support unfettered academic freedom and the absence of censorship. I do support efforts in ending the apartheid and colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza. The University of Johannesburg, given its prominence in a nation that knows the ravages of apartheid, does have a credible moral voice in this instance. What I find striking is that the petition claims Ben Gurion University of the Nevgev (BGU) has a direct financial and academic relationship with the Israeli Defence Forces and its armaments industry, largely derived from America’s unlimited largesse. Such a relationship between a university and a nation’s institutions that enforce a colonial occupation introduces an element to the issue of academic discontinuance that is morally acceptable.

It is one thing to boycott a university because of policy disputes with its government. It is quite another to boycott or cease academic exchanges with an institution of higher learning that directly participates and supports governmental actions deemed immoral and repugnant. While one could still argue that only those units within the offending institution should be boycotted, I think this boycott does rise to the level of honourable action that does not violate academic freedom. I reiterate my opposition to boycotting universities merely as a symbolic act of protest against a government’s policies. When a university itself lends its expertise to immoral acts in which a subject people is persecuted and denied national sovereignty, then such non-violent, faculty generated actions are appropriate.

This is the petition linked in the InsiderHigherEd article that was adopted by the UJ faculty senate that led to the severing of ties with BGU.


As members of the academic community of South Africa, a country with a history of brute racism on the one hand and both academic acquiescence and resistance to it on the other, we write to you with deep concern regarding the relationship between the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). The relationship agreement, presented as ‘merely the continuation’ of a ‘purely scientific co-operation’ is currently being reviewed owing to concerns raised by UJ students, academics and staff.

For reasons explained below and detailed in the attached Fact Sheet, we wish to add our voices to those calling for the suspension of UJ’s agreement with BGU.

As academics we acknowledge that all of our scholarly work takes place within larger social contexts – particularly in institutions committed to social transformation. South African institutions are under an obligation to revisit relationships forged during the apartheid era with other institutions that turned a blind eye to racial oppression in the name of ‘purely scholarly’ or ‘scientific work’.

The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has had disastrous effects on access to education for Palestinians. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception, by maintaining links to both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the arms industry BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation. An example of BGU’s complicity is its agreement with the IDF to provide full university qualification to airforce pilots within a special BGU programme. Furthermore, BGU is also complicit in the general discrimination at Israeli universities against Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

It is clear to us that any connection with an institution so heavily vested in the Israeli occupation would amount to collaboration with an occupation that denigrates the values and principles that form the basis of any vibrant democracy. These are not only the values that underpin our post-apartheid South Africa, but are also values that we believe UJ has come to respect and uphold in the democratic era.

We thus support the decision taken by UJ to reconsider the agreement between itself and BGU. Furthermore, we call for the relationship to be suspended until such a time that, at minimum, the state of Israel adheres to international law and BGU, (as did some South African universities during the struggle against South African apartheid) openly declares itself against the occupation and withdraws all privileges for the soldiers who enforce it.

InsideHigherEd article March 24, 2011

The University of Johannesburg, following a vote of its Senate on Wednesday, will end joint work with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The debate at Johannesburg has been closely watched by those advocates of Palestinian rights who see the isolation of Israeli higher education as a way to advance their cause, and by opponents of academic boycotts (who have a range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) who fear the potential for the move to be followed by others. Indeed many leading South African academics at other universities backed the movement at Johannesburg — although it is also the case that many professors in South Africa have opposed the boycott. Many critics of Israel compare its policies to those of apartheid-era South Africa (a comparison Israel rejects), and that has added to the significance of the vote at Johannesburg.

In the end, the Senate at Johannesburg voted on two options: ending ties to Ben-Gurion University or letting them continue but also developing ties to Palestinian universities. The vote (which the administration had said it would respect) was 72 to end ties to Ben-Gurion and 45 to keep them but add ties to Palestinian universities. A statement issued by the university noted that the end of official ties between the two universities does not rule out ties between individual faculty members at the two institutions.

The ties between the two universities include academic exchanges and joint research projects on topics that don’t pertain directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — biotechnology and water purification.

Supporters of the boycott said after the vote that it was “a landmark victory,” and they cited several reasons for cutting ties to Ben-Gurion. The petition that was used to gather support for the boycott vote offers this rationale: “The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has had disastrous effects on access to education for Palestinians. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception, by maintaining links to both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the arms industry BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation.”

Officials of Ben-Gurion campaigned against the boycott vote, arguing that universities should not be held responsible for the political decisions of their countries, and that academics at the university have a range of views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Ben-Gurion is home to some of the more prominent Israeli academic critics of the Israeli government, but also has been criticized for not doing enough to protect their academic freedom.)

Many academic opponents of the boycott have said that universities should not subject ties to other institutions to tests based on political issues. David Bilchitz, a law professor at Johannesburg who is director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law, published an op-ed just prior to the vote saying that the university was applying standards to an Israeli university that it does not apply to those from other countries.

He said that the only reason academics should rule out cooperation is if the research in question involves “the violation of fundamental rights.” And Bilchitz added that “[i]t is difficult to see how the UJ-BGU research into the purification of water and development of biofuels can contribute to the human rights of Palestinians being abrogated.”

Ben-Gurion University responded Thursday morning, stating that it “regrets the decision of the University of Johannesburg to terminate its collaborative research agreement and reaffirms its commitment to advancing the values of academic freedom, regional cooperation and the advancement of social justice through education and research.”

The statement added: “Peace will only happen when there is a dialogue between all of the people of the region. Canceling this agreement which was designed to solve real problems of water contamination in a reservoir near Johannesburg will only hurt the residents of South Africa.”

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