Stellenbosch University betrays academic principles
29 November 2018
For Stellenbosch University to cancel sessions with Israeli and Palestinian Speakers on the topic ‘Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma’ seems highly ironic and contrary to good academic standards and attempts at reconciliation.
When it was learned that Israeli academics, as well as Palestinian academic and peace activist Prof Mohammed Dajani, were scheduled to speak on the programme, the organisers were subjected to mounting pressure, including threats to disrupt the event, from BDS-aligned boycott factions. Instead of taking a firm stand against this bullying tactic, the organisers of the conference caved in by unilaterally cancelling the sessions at which the Israeli academics Prof Mohammed Dajani had been scheduled to speak. There is no truth whatsoever in the claim that these speakers voluntarily agreed not to participate. It has since been confirmed that the decision to exclude them was taken without their knowledge, and that they were only informed about it after the fact.
The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) is further outraged over the reason given for why the session with Professor Mohammed Dajani was cancelled. According to Prof Pumla Goboda-Madikizela, coordinator of the conference, it was because when Prof Dajani visited South Africa earlier this year, his visit was reported in these terms: ‘Dajani is visiting South Africa this week as part of his mission of moderation – during Israel Apartheid Week when feelings against Israel are running high – as a guest of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies”.
This clearly implied that the mere fact of Prof Dajani having been brought out by the 117 year old democratically representative body of the Jewish community was considered by the conference organisers to be a sufficient reason to remove his name from the original speaking programme.
In other words, any speaker endorsed by the SAJBD must be regarded as tainted by association, regardless of what their views or academic record might be. We associate such reasoning with extremist, fringe groups and therefore find it a disgrace and an embarrassment to a respected university like SU.
Yet in spite of claims that the University upholds freedom of expression, it has indeed betrayed its own fundamental values of academic freedom and diversity and has capitulated in the face of pressure by extremist lobbies aimed at side-lining anyone who does not fit into a particular political narrative.
Advocate Thuli Madonsela, Chair in Social Justice at the Stellenbosch University Law Faculty said, “ I believe the call for withdrawal of the Israeli-Palestinian academics is misplaced for several reasons. The first is this is a conference on reparations and reconciliation and thus could have a positive influence on the Palestinian Challenge. The second is that when there was a boycott on South Africa, that did not include its academics participating in peace and justice discussions. The third is that we don’t even know the views of the academics concerned and such views could provide insights into the impasse while providing opportunities to engage with a view to positively influencing change.
The correct stance for the organisers to have taken should have been to stand firm with the original conference programme and to deal with any attempted disruptions as and when they occurred. Instead, they chose to surrender to intimidation, thereby irrevocably tainting their event as well as undermining Stellenbosch University’s own standing as a credible institution of higher learning.
Issued by Wendy Kahn, National Director, SAJBD, 29 November 2018