SAfrica school rethinks Israel ties

University of Johannesburg threatens to sever ties with Israeli Ben-Gurion University if certain conditions are not met.

Azad Essa Last Modified: 30 Sep 2010 01:21 GMT

The South African University of Johannesburg (UJ) senate has threatened to end its relationship with the Israeli university, Ben-Gurion (BGU), unless certain conditions are met.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the South African university’s highest academic body said Ben-Gurion University would have to work with Palestinian universities on research projects and stop its “direct and indirect support for the Israeli military and the occupation”.

“The conditions are that the memorandum of understanding governing the relationship between the two institutions be amended to include Palestinian universities chosen with the direct involvement of UJ,” the university said in a statement.

“Additionally, UJ will not engage in any activities with BGU that have direct or indirect military implications, this to be monitored by UJ’s senate academic freedom committee.

“Should these conditions not be met within six months, the memorandum of understanding will automatically lapse on April 1 2011,” UJ said.

Describing the afternoon senate meeting on Wednesday as mostly “tense”, the UJ senate also called on BGU to “respect UJ’s duty (and) to take seriously, allegations of behaviour on the part of BGU’s stakeholders that is incompatible with UJ’s values”.

‘Human dignity’

Adam Habib, the UJ’s vice-chancellor told Al Jazeera that the decision was based on two principles.

“Firstly it was important to identify with an oppressed population and secondly, it was about creating an enabling environment for reconciliation and the achievement of human dignity.”

Habib said his university will be engaging Palestinian academic institutions in a bid to solicit advice on mapping a way forward, and that the current memorandum of understanding (MOU) between UJ and Ben-Gurion would have to broaden.

“For instance, we know that the BGU has collaborative projects with the Israeli army and we also know that the university implements state policy, which invariably results in the discrimination of the Palestinian people,” Habib said.

“Crucially, there can be no activities between UJ and an Israeli educational institution that discriminated against the Palestinian people.”

Habib said that while the decision still had to be ratified by the university council, these changes would have to happen over the next six months, or the existing MOU would collapse.

‘Unprecedented momentum’

Salim Vally, a senior researcher at the Faculty of Education and spokesman for the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC), told Al Jazeera that the move to sever academic ties with BGU “has created an unprecedented momentum and has galvanised academics towards fighting for social justice”.

“While the PSC supports an unequivocal and unambiguous boycott of all Israeli state institutions, this is a move in the right direction and we are confident that it would lead to a more comprehensive boycott of Israel in the future.

“We know that they have a relationship with the military, making them complicit in the acts of the army, and in the next six months we will prove that the relationship with BGU should be severed completely,” Vally said.

Relations between Ben-Gurion University and the University of Johannesburg, formerly the Rand Afrikaans University, a formerly all-white university under South Africa’s apartheid system, began in

The University of Johannesburg, created in 2005, took over various campuses including Rand Afrikaans University and a university in the black township of Soweto as part of efforts to ensure higher education was transformed with the rest of South Africa after the end of apartheid.

The current partnership with Ben Gurion dates back to August 2009 when the universities signed an academic cooperation and staff exchange agreement, concerning water purification and micro-algal biotechnology research.

Academic dissonance

The re-established relationship drew sharp criticism from the university community and catalysed the formation of a petition that has drawn some of the biggest academics, authors and social activists in South Africa.

Desmond Tutu and around 250 other prominent South African academics have supported ending UJ’s links with the Israeli institution.

“Israeli universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice,” Tutu wrote in an essay that appeared in a South African newspaper on Sunday.

“While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation.”

Academic boycotts of Israeli universities have been inspired by boycotts of South African institutions during apartheid.

A 2003 proposal for British universities to sever all ties with Israeli academic institutions was

Two years later Britain’s Association of University Teachers voted to boycott Israel’s Haifa and Bar Ilan universities. That decision was overturned only a month later under fierce international pressure.
US professors and students also have called for academic and cultural boycotts of Israel.

The moves have prompted sharp criticism. Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz once threatened legal action that would “devastate and bankrupt” anyone who boycotts Israeli universities.

The New York-based Anti-Defamation League described the British moves as anti-Semitic, arguing Israel was being singled out while human rights violators such as Iran, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe were ignored.

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