The coming academic boycott of Israel at UCT? Part 2

Sara Gon writes on the likely consequences for the university should it take this step

The coming academic boycott of Israel at UCT? Part 2

Politicsweb published “The coming academic boycott of Israel at UCT?” on 28 August 2017. This second article deals with possible repercussions if the University of Cape Town (UCT) formally boycotts Israeli academics and/or academia.

There has been little formal public engagement on a boycott against Israel for some time at UCT. The annual Israel Anti-Apartheid Week doesn’t fall into this category - it is a hate-fest accompanied by a range of disciplinary breaches.

In response to a call for a boycott in 2014, UCT Vice-chancellor Dr. Max Price said UCT as an institution cannot support the call to condemn certain issues pertaining to Israel, that UCT upholds the rights of individual academics and students to do so and will “facilitate the promotion of all views and serious debate.” Some critics say that the promotion of dissenting view has largely been observed in the breach.

The program advocating a boycott was hosted by “Israel Academic Boycott”, a program of the UCT - Palestinian Solidarity Forum (PSF) which has been pressing the issue since 2010. From PFS’s Facebook page:

UCT PFS is campaigning for UCT to adopt an academic boycott of Israel. We have campaigned for this in the past, but this time it is a real possibility! UCT has committed itself to an institutional process to decide on a boycott, culminating in a decision by UCT Council, hopefully by the end of the year. If the university implements a boycott, it would be a huge victory in the Palestinian solidarity movement!

The PSF is saying that an institutional process has actually commenced at UCT to decide on a boycott. In which forum did this decision take place? Presumably there is a set of minutes reflecting this decision? If there is no such process, UCT must clarify its position.

This raises a further question: where this leaves UCT’s new Academic Freedom Committee (AFC)? The new AFC comprises Price, ex officio, Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, Assoc-Prof. Elelwani Ramugondo, Dr. Shaib Manjra, Prof. Haroon Bhorat, Prof. Rashida Manjoo, Prof. Pierre de Vos, Dr. Christine Swart and Dr. Tom Angier. The three Student Representative Committee members have yet to be appointed.

Shuaib Manjra has a long history of anti-Israel statements and support for Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions (BDS). Rashida Manjoo was an organiser of the University of Johannesburg boycott of Ben-Gurion University and is a member of BDS.

The new AFC invited Ugandan Prof. Mahmood Mamdani to give 2017’s TB Davie Memorial Lecture in support of academic freedom. Mamdani strongly supports BDS and anti-Israel positions.

A group of UCT academics formally requested Mamdani to boycott the lecture until Flemming Rose’s lecture on freedom of speech, which was cancelled in 2016 by Price, was reinstated. Mamdani did not withdraw from the lecture or indicate that he would be taking a stand against the disinvitation of Rose.

In fact, during his lecture he asked whether the UCT academics who were vocal in support of Roses invitation would feel as warmly towards an address by the publishers of anti-Semitic cartoons in Nazi Germany, or those artists who incited the Rwandan genocide. Terming Rose “Islamophobic”, Mamdani affirmed Roses right to free speech!

 “But there is no democratic right to give the academic freedom lec ture at UCT,” Mamdani said. “Its not a right; its an honour, and Mr Rose does not deserve that honour.”

PSF’s new boycott call comes at a time when much global opinion going against BDS’s position. Israel is growing its relationships in Africa and the international community increasingly supports a negotiated two-state solution. This may have much to do with the bloody turmoil in the Middle East of the recent past between Muslim combatants and has nothing to do with Israel.

Presently the ties between Israeli universities on the one hand and Chinese, African and Canadian universities are increasing.

Action by American States

In 2013 the American Studies Association (ASA), which represent certain academics, voted for a boycott of Israeli academia. Two-thirds of the 1,252 members who voted, voted in support. At the time there were 3,853 eligible voters.

In response 252 university and colleges publicly condemned the vote for the boycott. These universities included every ivy league and top university in America except the California University of Technology (Caltech).

The District (Federal) Court for the District of Columbia (DC) has ruled that four college professors can sue the ASA over its academic boycott of Israel (Bronner v Duggan).

The charge is that the ASA violated DC’s law governing tax-exempt NGOs, namely, an NGO cannot act beyond its chartered purposes. ASA’s includes promoting knowledge and the “strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad.”

The judge dismissed ASA’s claim that a boycott of another country is outside the scope of ASA’s charter.

In the past 18 months 21 American states have passed legislation prohibiting public companies and entities doing business with entities that support BDS.

Some states only condemn BDS for spreading anti-Semitism. Others ban the state from entering into contracts with companies that participate in the boycott against Israel.

The 21 states (with the percentage of their Jewish populations) are: Tennessee (0,3%), South Carolina (0,3%), Illinois (2,3%), California (3,6%), Alabama (0,2%), Colorado (2,5%), Indiana (0,3%), Florida (3,2%), Virginia (1,1%), Arizona (1,6%), Georgia (1,3%), Iowa (0,2%), New York (8,6%), New Jersey (6,1%), Pennsylvania (2,3%), Ohio (0,8%), Texas (0,6%), Nevada (1,1%), Kansas (0,6%), North Carolina (0,4% and Michigan (0,8%).

What these percentages reveal is that Jews do not present anything approaching a significant, political block that the states have to support. New York and New Jersey, which until recently had a bigger Jewish population than Israel, are the exceptions. However, their Jewish populations still don’t reach double-digit percentages.

This suggests that moral, religious and/or economic relations with Jews and/or Israel motivated the voting.

Some of the legislation condemns BDS for spreading anti-Semitism. Others actually ban the state from entering into contracts with companies that participate in the boycott against Israel.

Illinois, for example, targets taxpayer funded public pension funds that invest in companies which have adopted a BDS stance towards Israel. This may affect a pro-boycott university that has a relationship with such a state university. Companies that boycott Israel in Illinois were added to restricted company lists which undergo periodic review and are sent around to managers at all taxpayer funded public pension funds.

Most of the states are controlled by the Republican party but not all. California is Democrat controlled. Illinois, Colorado, Virginia, Iowa, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Nevada have a split control situation. All the states’ votes, however, were overwhelmingly majorities in favour of their respective bills.

Potential damage to UCT

A boycott by UCT would be a bit like the nerd hitting the bully after someone’s already knocked him out. UCT doesn’t have any formal ties with Israeli academia. UCT wouldn’t have to go through the unpleasantness of severing existing ties.

UCT, however, does have 43 partnership agreements with approximately 24 American universities. The risk to UCT’s reputation and standing will lie primarily in responses by American academia to any possible boycott decision. Relationships with the signatory universities, particularly state universities are likely to be adversely affected.

The universities that reside in anti-boycott states include the University of Texas, New York University, UCLA, Northwestern University, Brooklyn College, University of California at Davis, State University of New York (Oswego), Stern Business School at New York University, Pennsylvania State University, Eastern Illinois University and the University of North Carolina.

There are no ascertainable obligations on these universities to terminate partnerships with universities that support the boycott, but cancellation or non-renewal are possible. But the remaining 252 universities opposed the boycott, are likely to avoid future connections with UCT.

Three of the global university ranking agencies (Shanghai Rankings, The Times Higher Education World Universities Ranking and the QS World University Rankings) have 14, 14 and 11 American universities respectively in their lists of their top twenty universities, which universities are also opposed to a boycott. Any change to UCT’s American relationships is likely to result in some negative effect on its rankings.

Rankings are certainly contestable but universities themselves use them for marketing purposes. Unrelated to any boycott after 12 years among the worlds best, the Masters in Business Administration offered by the University of Cape Towns Graduate School of Business has fallen off the 2017 London Financial Times (FT) Top 100 ranking of full-time programmes. The marketing impact will be felt, shallow as this may be.

Other responses to BDS

On 17 May 2017 the governors of all of America’s 50 states signed a declaration condemning BDS as antithetical to American values. The statement does not commit the governors to specific actions, although signatories “reaffirm our support for Israel as a vital U.S. ally, important economic partner and champion of freedom.”

However America’s detractors view it, America is still the world’s largest economy and its tertiary educational institutions are the most sort after by students in America and globally.

Anti-boycott views have also been expressed by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, the American Association of University Professors, and University UK, the umbrella body of United Kingdom’s Universities.

The South African Universities Association (Universities SA) has never come out in support of any form of boycott against Israeli academia. The boycott lobby has made much supposed boycott by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in 2011. It appears, however, that support for the boycott, which was referred to in the first article, did not amount to an actual boycott.

In September 2014, a statement was issued by Prof. Tinyiko Maluleke, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Internationalisation, Institutional Advancement and Student Affairs at UJ, strongly denying that UJ had decided to implement an academic boycott against Israeli institutions.

Prof. Maluleke “noted with contempt” that a Palestine news agency published an incorrect and baseless a report alleging that UJ had resolved to forbid Israeli academics and students from coming to UJ or collaborating with UJ researchers. 

The misunderstanding apparently arose as a result of dispute in 2010-2011 regarding a research project between UJ and Ben-Gurion University (BGU), and the conditions under which it should be conducted.

The UJ Senate voted not to continue its relationship with BGU unless it agreed to include Palestinian universities chosen together with UJ  Should the conditions not be met, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) governing the project would automatically lapse on 1 April 2011.

In mid-March 2011, boycott campaigners released a document alleging BGU’s "direct and indirect role” in violations of human rights and international law by Israel. On 1 April 2011, UJ announced that the MoU would lapse on 1 April.

Apparently proponents of an academic boycott broadcast the Senate ruling as a victory. However, UJ stressed that the decision did not amount to a boycott, but rather, a vote in favour of the MoU lapsing. Prof. Maluleke stressed that UJ did not support academic boycotts and pointed out that UJ and BGU could still continue the research partnership on an inter-departmental (if no longer institutional) basis.

Subsequently the collaborative scientific project that the boycott lobby was trying to end was “not only salvaged, but expanded upon, no bans or restrictions were placed on either individual or inter-departmental ties between UJ and its Israeli counterparts.”

On 28 October 2010, 41 Nobel Laureates issued a statement on “Academic BDS Actions Against Israeli Academics, Israeli Academic Institutions and Academic Centres and Institutes of Research and Training With Affiliations in Israel”. The statement denounced calls and campaigns for boycotting, divestment and sanctions against Israeli academics, academic institutions and university-based centres and institutes for training and research, affiliated with to Israel. (Note: there have been nine South African Nobel Laureates, two of whom are Jewish and one of whom is an alumnus of UCT).

The anticipated number of students at UCT this year is 29,000. The estimated number of Jewish students is between 350 - 450. The Jewish population of South Africa is 0,12% of the total population. The Jewish population of UCT is 1,6%.

The numbers are tiny, but a cursory effort at researching the percentage of famous Jewish alumni from UCT reveals that Jewish alumni represent between 16 and 20% depending on the list. Those percentages are hugely above the percentage of the Jewish population.

Some Jewish South Africans support the BDS boycott, but the majority do not. If UCT adopts this boycott, it is likely to lose the support of the majority of Jewish South Africans. While the percentage of Jewish support is small, the positive impact of Jewish involvement in a university is significant.

For a number of years Jewish students at UCT and other universities have been subject to the most hate-filled anti-Semitism. The annual Israel Apartheid Week which Price once extraordinarily described as a “forum for debate and discussion” is a week in which many of UCT disciplinary rules are breached by pro-Palestinian supporters through subjecting Jewish students to abuse, hate-speech and, sometimes, violence.

In June 2017 the Equality Court found Congress of South African Trade Unions' (Cosatu) Bongani Masuku guilty of hate speech and ordered him to make "unconditional apology" to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) within 30 days of the order for comments he made in 2009. The application was launched by the Human Rights Commission.

During an address at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) hosted by the Palestine Solidarity Committee and the Young Communist League, he threatened that Jewish South Africans would be targeted because of their support for Israel. Masuku said that Jewish lives would be made "hell", and that vigilante action would be taken against Jewish families suspected of having members serving in the Israeli military. He said that Jews who continued to stand up for Israel should "not just be encouraged, but forced to leave South Africa".

While this particular case involved Wits, it reflects much of what happens at UCT on a regular. Jewish students who don’t emigrate for their education will move to private universities, if they can afford to.

No higher educational institution should be prepared to lose support of a valuable group. UCT has been good to Jewish students and Jewish students have been good to UCT.

Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica.