Boycott Calls Against Israel: The Battle over BDS in South Africa: an Analysis.

At a 30 March 2019 meeting, the Council of the University of Cape Town rejected the motion to adopt a BDS resolution and referred the matter back to the Senate. The Council noted that a number of issues required clarification including a full assessment of the sustainability impact of the Senate resolution which was adopted two weeks earlier, and a more consultative process was necessary before the matter could be considered any further.  The Senate resolution which required the vote of the Council stated:

“UCT will 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 the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

credit: Israel Hayom.

But the BDS activists don’t always wait for a vote. A few months ago, BDS activists threatened to “blow up” a conference if Israelis took part in it. This threat prompted the conference organizer to ask the Israeli scholars not to participate.  To recall, in November 2018, IAM reported on this international conference which disinvited three Israeli scholars due to pressure from the BDS movement. The conference, “Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma” took place in December 2018 at the University of Stellenbosch. The chair of the organizing committee, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, was responsible for disinviting the Israeli scholars.  Prof. Shifra Sagy of Ben Gurion University, whose research deals with the possibilities for promoting understanding and dialogue between groups in conflicts, is one of the three Israeli scholars who was disinvited. She explained that

“The organizer of the conference contacted me and told me about the difficulties she was facing. At first, she reported that it had worked out, but later she called to apologize and said it wouldn’t be possible for us to appear… The [BDS] activists sent a letter to the organizers and threatened to ‘blow up’ the conference if Israelis took part.” 

Sagy also mentioned that a researcher has canceled a scheduled meeting with her due to BDS.  Gobodo-Madikizela and Sagy have actually known each other for years as they have both worked extensively in reconciliation and dialogue.  Gobodo-Madikizela explained her reasons,

“I have been thrown on the horns of an ongoing dilemma. On the one hand, I want to protect Stellenbosch University from protests and ensure that this conference, which I have worked so hard to organize, goes well, and not allow any organization to control how discussions are conducted, and what conversations are permitted. On the other hand, knowing that the flare-up is because of Israeli participation, I wanted my Israeli colleagues to understand the pressure that this imposes.”

But Gobodo-Madikizela has a longstanding connection to Israeli academics, dating back to 1998 when she worked with Dan Bar-On, the late professor of psychology.

“I hosted Bar-On the previous year, when he visited South Africa to observe the public process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And his colleague Sami Adwan, the Palestinian Professor of Education. For Gobodo-Madikizela both Adwan and Bar-On are among the “leading figures in peace scholarship and activism that seeks an alternative form of engagement to the one that dominates Palestine-Israeli relations”, she said. “The late Bar-On’s book on the children of Nazi perpetrators influenced my own work and became one of the foundational pillars in my scholarly pursuits,”

she added. She never wanted to silence or isolate Israelis – quite the opposite.

“We, of course, believe in academic freedom, and we believe in the right to boycott, given the role that this played in our own struggle against apartheid. But I also know that our conference was not the appropriate vehicle for the application of the boycott”.

Soon after the incident, Stellenbosch University officials tried to deny capitulating to BDS. In a statement on 30 November, Wim De Villiers, Stellenbosch University’s rector and vice-chancellor, presented the disinvitation as a misunderstanding by the Israeli scholars.

“When the first statement expressing opposition to the participation of Israeli speakers came to the attention of the organizers, a strategic decision was taken to remove the names of individuals and their institutions from the website as a precautionary measure to prevent academics and their institutions from being targeted, and to prevent the conference from derailing.”

The Israeli scholars were still appearing in the program, he explained, but the

“Israeli delegates decide to withdraw their participation as a result of circumstances beyond the control of the university and the conference organizing committee”. 

Obviously, Gobodo-Madikizela did not disclose to him that she specifically requested Sagy not to come.

To overcome the distrust by the Jewish community, during a meeting in January 2019 between Stellenbosch University and South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies the parties announced that

“The University will, as in previous years, continue to welcome Israeli scholars.”

The Israel Academic Boycott is a program of the University of Cape Town Palestinian Solidarity Forum which was founded in 2010 and has promoted an academic boycott of Israeli academia ever since.  South Africa is hospitable to BDS for a number of reasons. The Jewish population in South Africa is diminishing, currently numbering less than 80,000, while the Muslim population is increasing amounting to one million. The Palestinian influence is gaining strength. The PA has had strong ties with South Africa, but since 2015 so does Hamas.

In a 2015 visit, Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader, received red carpet treatment and was introduced to many important players including the South African President Jacob Zuma. Although South Africa’s governing political party, the African National Congress (ANC) has had informal liaisons with Hamas for a long time, this visit represented a significant warming up. ANC announced that

“There are those who think that by ignoring any of the players it will bring the region closer to a peaceful solution. Our experience in South Africa was that the process of negotiations involved all players irrespective of their views and beliefs.”

in December 2018, the ANC signed an agreement with Hamas’ Foreign Minister Mahmoud Al-Zahar. The agreement seeks to

“introduce practical steps in mobilizing the international community to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestine, including working towards the full boycott of all Israeli products”.

Also that month, South Africa’s National Freedom Party leader, Ahmed Munzoor Shaik Emam, tabled a draft resolution calling for the unconditional downgrade of the South African Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The BDS activists recruited a number of key players. In his recent article “UCT Must Take ‘Moral Stand’ And Boycott Israeli Institutions,” Richard Falk, former UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestine Territories (2008-2014), and emeritus professor of International Law at Princeton University, wrote in favor of the boycott, a day before the UCT Council voted:

“it is important to appreciate that the academic boycott that Palestinians have called for and that your Council is considering boycotts complicit Israeli institutions, but it does not interfere with the activities of individual academics.”

Contrary to Falk’s assertion, as noted earlier, Israeli individual academics were in fact targeted at the University of Stellenbosch conference in December.

Falk, who is Jewish, has offered some convoluted explanations as to why target Israel alone:

 “As far as singling out Israel, there exist special justifications for the emphasis on Israeli wrongdoing. It should be remembered that Britain exerted control over Palestine as ‘a sacred trust’ on behalf of the international society until the establishment of the United Nations. At that point, the UN took over the responsibility to find a solution for Palestine in a manner that existed with respect to no other country in the world. The failure of the UN and international diplomacy to find a solution after seven decades reinforces the positive argument for relying on the role of civil society, which should be a decisive encouragement for the Council to endorse the Senate decision and so move with the flow of history toward freedom, justice, and the protection of basic human rights;”

he wrote. As a long-time professor in international law, he should be aware that the Palestinians and their Arab States allies rejected the 1947 UN Partition proposal and started a war soon after, but he has not mentioned it.

Another Jewish activist recruited by the BDS activists is Mitchel Joffe Hunter, member of South African Jews for a Free Palestine. In his article “Why Jews support academic boycott of Israel”, he claims that Jews who support the calls for Palestinian liberation are not anti-Semitic. That, “academic boycott is an expression of Jewish ethics.” While “Antisemitism is a form of racism against Jews as Jews, [the call for a boycott] is not a targeted attack against Jews or Jewish organizations but against Israeli state sponsored institutions.”

Not surprising that Hunter mentioned that,

“Jewish Israeli academics also support the academic boycott such as Rachel Giora, a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University and prominent Israeli feminist. Hunter quoted from her letter in 2009 to an academic boycott meeting of British academics stating that “in fact Israeli academia is no different from any other Israeli institutions, and in many cases it plays an active if not vital role in supporting Israeli apartheid practices against the Palestinians… the growing number of Israelis who are now supporting cultural and academic boycotts will rejoice in your achievements”.

On the other hand, there are some calls opposing the boycott, such as Rhulani Thembi Siweya, member of the ANC who announced that “BDS-SA undermines South Africans.” According to her, it is a

“reckless manner in which the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement in South Africa (BDS-SA) handles the Israel-Palestine conflict.” 

They “selectively discriminate against entrepreneurial and business opportunities by corporations linked to Israel.” if this is not challenged, it “may lead to a huge collapse of the South African economy”. She questions

“Why is BDS-SA so willing to sacrifice its fellow South African workers for its own self-serving position… It is strange that the BDS-SA selectively singles out only the Israeli “occupation” — part of a geographically disputed area still subjected to a two-state peace process — while South Africa continues to enjoy bilateral trade relations with many other “occupations””. 

BDS-SA has been deafeningly silent about other occupations in the world.

credit: Khaled Abu Toameh. Twitter.

Something does not add up here. Closer to home, it’s a disgrace that on our own continent, in Libya, we still have slavery… This is slavery of fellow Africans on our continent. Why is BDS-SA silent on this?” 

Moreover, she noted,

“Israel continues to be the Palestinian Authority’s most important trading partner. In fact, Palestinian Authority officials were recently seen at a meeting sitting around a table that has on it, several juice bottles, all products from Israel. How does BDS-SA call on South African companies to boycott Israeli products while Palestinian leaders themselves are not boycotting those same Israeli products?”

But as mentioned earlier, the main concern here is that BDS activists threaten to “blow up” conferences hosting Israelis. This should be acknowledged by the universities administrations.  IAM will report on the developments in South Africa in due course.

University of Cape Town Facebook

UCT Council decision on the resolution of the Senate regarding formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

The University of Cape Town Council, at its meeting on 30 March 2019, considered the resolution of the Senate that

“UCT will 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 the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

Council did not adopt this resolution of the Senate. It was the view of the Council that a number of issues required clarification, including a full assessment of the sustainability impact of the Senate resolution, and a more consultative process was necessary before the matter could be considered any further. Council resolved to refer the matter back to the Senate.

The Council separately resolved to:

  • Reaffirm its commitment to supporting the rights and freedom of all people as universally recognised under international law;
  • Condemn any acts that violate those rights and freedoms;
  • Condemn the atrocities and human rights violations perpetrated in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and elsewhere in the world;
  • Call on all academics and academic institutions to support this resolution;
  • Reaffirm UCT’s commitment to academic freedom but reserves the right to dissociate itself from those academics and academic institutions that support (directly or indirectly) the violation of human rights and /or enable the violation of human rights.

Royston Pillay
Registrar and Secretary to Council
University of Cape Town


Posted at Israel Academia Monitor whose goal is to present the truth by making the activities of those academics more widely known and challenging their distortions and bias.

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