UCT: Academic boycott of Israeli institutions not anti-Semitic

Allan Horwitz says it is critical that the Jewish community see beyond this misidentification


While the merits and demerits of the academic boycott as a non-violent, moral and political weapon against countries/institutions that violate human rights (both individual and collective) can be rigorously debated, the current call to the University of Cape Town (UCT) to adopt an academic boycott of Israeli institutions is certainly not anti-Semitic.

Universities are regarded as institutions which ought to facilitate and strengthen the exchange of ideas as a key means for furthering learning and knowledge production. In enabling this objective, there is a view that a university should be a non-partisan space where all views, irrespective of their objectivity and ethical basis, should be heard and discussed – and that this is a non-negotiable cornerstone of academic freedom. However, while in principal the universal tenets of academic freedom are to be respected so that there is maximum exposure to all perspectives, there are a number of other considerations to be taken into account.

State funded academic institutions are part of the many mechanisms by which a government exercises its ideological and political power. Even innocuous-seeming public amenities such as water and electricity are political tools when it comes to the inclusion and/or exclusion of people with regard to the delivery and cost of these services. Therefore, when dealing with an inherently unjust state, a boycott of any of its institutions serves to challenge the system by which this state functions.

The Israeli state is currently in violation of numerous international codes of conduct – both with regard to the Arab people and their land in the occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and to the Palestinian Arab population within the borders of the state. Mass expulsions of civilian populations, military occupation and control, the building of illegal Israeli Jewish settlements, illegal exploitation of natural resources like land and water, denial of civilian freedom of movement, detention without trial, indefinite imprisonment of activists without being charged, collective punishment of the families of activists alleged to have committed crimes of resistance to these violations, as well as the denial of full civil rights to Palestinian Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship – all these violations of international law have led to the vast majority of United Nations member-states condemning Israel actions and demanding respect for and the implementation of Palestinian rights.

Israel, however, since its inception in 1948, has continued to flaunt its military superiority and ignore this international condemnation, and so, despite this diplomatic pressure, has successfully continued to pursue policies of discrimination and expansionism. It is in this context , and the worsening of the human rights and economic condition of the Palestinian people as a whole, that, over the past decade, an international movement has called for the isolation of Apartheid Israel in the same way that the South African state Apartheid was isolated.    

Importantly, the call is not to boycott individual academics purely because they were born in Israel, rather it is aimed at all institutions, which function under the official governance of the Israeli State:

“BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement, including PACBI (Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity (such as citizenship, race, gender, or religion) or opinion.  If, however, an individual is representing the state of Israel or a complicit Israeli institution (such as a dean, rector, or president), or is commissioned/recruited to participate in Israel’s efforts to “rebrand” itself, then her/his activities are subject to the institutional boycott the BDS movement is calling for.”

In light of the above definition, it is obvious that the call to boycott Israeli universities does not amount to anti Semitism – that is, a generalized hatred of all Jewish people based on supposed collective responsibility for immoral and evil purposes relating to wealth and power-mongering. 

The call deals very specifically with institutions and the particular individuals who uphold and further the policies and practices of the Israeli State and its bureaucracies,  and specifically targets those  institutions, and is not a blanket ban of all Israelis (and, as an extension, also not a ban of Jews merely because they are Jews). The conflation of anti Zionism with anti Semitism is one that is all too often invoked by the Jewish community to silence anti Zionist protest. It is crucial that the Jewish community see beyond this misidentification.

When the rights to free speech are invoked as a justification for the espousal of unjust and harmful ideologies, such as sexism or racism, that universal right is used to oppress and expose others to hate speech and contempt. We have seen this recently, since the inauguration of the Trump administration in the US, where bigoted and discriminatory statements have been condoned on the basis of free speech (some such enunciations have been anti-Semitic). In this case we would agree that universal rights cannot be applied uniformly, and, indeed, that these very rights can be used to undermine them.

The PACBI Guidelines for the International Academic Boycott of Israel states:

“Academic institutions are a key part of the ideological and institutional scaffolding of Israel’s regime of occupation, colonialism and apartheid against the Palestinian people. Since its founding, the Israeli academy has cast its lot with the hegemonic political-military establishment in Israel, and notwithstanding the efforts of a handful of principled academics, the Israeli academy is profoundly implicated in supporting and perpetuating Israel’s systematic denial of Palestinian rights.”

Universities (especially in South Africa) hold a long-standing tradition of being sites for political contestation. The University is not, and should not, be an apolitical space. Universities are uniquely positioned institutions to be at the forefront of progressive thought and leaders in moral responsibility. It is therefore incumbent on the University of Cape Town to heed the call to boycott Israeli institutions.

In this spirit the SAJFP commends the UCT PSF (Palestine Solidarity Forum) for initiating this academic boycott campaign and trust that many other South African educational institutions will also demonstrate to the Israeli state and society that they will be held accountable.  Rather than shut down academic freedom, the campaign has created a useful space in support of human rights. There are few non-violent options open to challenge the Israeli regime and this boycott is one that fits into the larger BDS project.

In conclusion, we urge the South African Jewish community to see this campaign as an opportunity to stand up against human rights abuses together with Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine who share the same concerns about justice and equality – and who have recognized that the academic boycott is a legitimate and morally justifiable act in the spirit of tikun olam (the Jewish ethical imperative to be involved in and “repair the world”).

By allowing Israeli institutions to function with impunity, we stand to condone the violent actions of their State. Holding it and the Zionist movement accountable is not only a way of showing solidarity with the Palestinian cause; it is also an act of support for the Jewish people in their constant struggle for human rights in the many different societies in which we live.

Allan Kolski Horwitz

South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP)