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Israel boycott motion withdrawn by UCT senate

  • UCT
The senate of the University of Cape Town (UCT) made a momentous decision on 22 November when two thirds of its members voted to cancel a motion made in March 2019 proposing a boycott of Israeli universities.
by TALI FEINBERG | Nov 28, 2019

“Earlier this year, the senate voted to call for the university to enforce a boycott of Israeli institutions. This would have been the first step in institutionalising a boycott. But on Friday, Professor Hugh Corder, a constitutional law professor, proposed a motion to rescind the senate’s earlier decision,” said Scott Roberts, the vice-chairperson of Progress SA, an organisation that has played a vital role in fighting the possibility of an academic boycott at UCT.

“The new motion cited concerns about academic freedom, which is a part of the right to freedom of expression in terms of Section 16 of the Constitution. Senate resolved not to impose a prohibition on the tertiary academic sector of any nation state,” said Roberts.

The new resolution was seconded by Professor Kelly Chibale, a professor of organic chemistry at UCT. The senate voted in favour 68.7%.

The rule is that a two-thirds majority is needed to rescind any decision of senate if it happens within 12 months of the first motion. The March motion proposing an academic boycott is therefore no longer a decision of senate. It has been replaced by the 22 November motion.

Professor Corder said nothing would have been accomplished “without the active and profound support of a few senior members of senate, drawn from all faculties, who overwhelmingly have at heart the academic project at UCT”.

From here, the new resolution will either be ratified or rejected by the university’s council on 7 December. A source speaking on condition of anonymity told the SA Jewish Report it was likely the council would vote in favour of the new resolution.

Another factor at play is the “impact and sustainability assessment” which the UCT council asked the UCT executive to undertake to examine all likely consequences – including financial and reputational – of any proposed boycott of Israeli institutions. Many organisations and individuals contributed, including all UCT alumni, who were polled. This process is yet to be concluded, and it isn’t certain that it will be completed in time to present to the council in December.

Kayla Ginsberg, the national director of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), said “The battle against the boycott motion was one defended over many months and fraught with complexities. Procedurally, the motion moved from lower committees right up to council. It was amended several times, and that along with procedural requirements, resulted in the motion being heard in senate multiple times.

“The entire process took three years, wherein SAUJS alongside the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), and South African Friends of Israel (SAFI), invested countless hours ensuring that academic freedom and the rights of Jewish students prevailed. We hope that UCT will now be able to redirect its efforts, which have been hijacked with the narrow-minded boycott motion, towards educating the leaders of tomorrow and ultimately building a better South Africa.”

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Solidarity Forum (PSF) told IOL News that, “It’s 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’.”

Said Roberts, “For now, it seems like the possibility of any kind of politically-inspired academic boycott at UCT has been put to bed. A 68% rejection by senate is very, very convincing.”

Asked about the role of Progress SA in making this happen, Roberts said it had worked to raise awareness. “We circulated a memo amongst hundreds of staff presenting arguments against the Israeli academic boycott. Meetings of senate have been poorly attended, and many liberal academics have stopped attending as a result of radicalism dominating university discourse in the past few years. However, on Friday, there was a great turnout at senate, including a large number of liberal academics. We hope our activism has had something to do with this.

“The other thing that was important is that this wasn’t a question of Israeli/Palestinian loyalty for us. We were careful to point out that this was about the freedom of members of UCT not to have a certain viewpoint imposed on them. Framed as such, even members of the UCT community who are critical of the Israeli government could get on board with the idea that a boycott is a bad idea.”

Sara Gon of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has written extensively on the dangers of a boycott at UCT. Reviewing the chain of events, she said, “From the start, it seemed as if the senate’s original decision was driven by certain factional interests, and the rest of the senate went along with it without doing any research. While this process has played out, a number of things have happened. Although the government’s foreign-relations position remains hostile to Israel, it’s become much more pragmatic about its economic relations. Another thing is the United Nations report declaring BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] to be anti-Semitic. I don’t think this is necessarily the end of the matter, but it should put the cause back awhile.”

SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn said it was significant that the discussion at senate focused on academic freedom, and the decision was reached based on these values. “This protracted campaign has done little to advance peace building between Palestinians and Israelis. All it has done is create polarisation and divert attention from important local issues. We are reassured that the members of the UCT senate saw through the ‘dirty tricks’ employed by BDS groups on campus. They were not swayed by the spamming of senate members, personal attacks on academics, and the fraudulent impersonation of SAUJS students. The senate’s decision is a victory for academic freedom in our country and globally.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public policy at the SAZF, said, “UCT’s repudiation of this resolution shows that South Africans are interested in peace in the Middle East. It creates a precedent for the direction our institutions should take. It’s now time to push forward, and increase engagement between South Africans and Israelis, for example, students from UCT going to the Weizmann Institute [an initiative organised by SAFI].”

SAZF chairperson Rowan Polovin thanked the senate for “standing up to this campaign of hate, and asserting the importance of academic freedom over narrow political agendas. Its repudiation sends a strong message that freedom of academic enquiry without limitation is essential. Academics, students, and faculty at UCT are free to engage with Israeli academia or that of any country they so choose, without restriction.”

The head of media liaison at UCT, Nombuso Shabalala, would not comment, saying, “The senate resolution still has to go to council next month where a final decision will be made on the matter. Thereafter we will comment.”

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