Below is the text of a memo that is currently being circulated to members of UCT Senate, providing reasons why UCT should reject the proposed academic boycott of Israeli institutions, to be voted on on 13 September 2019. 

Dear UCT Senator,

9 Reasons Why You Should Vote to Reject the Israeli Academic Boycott

On 13 September, you, as a member of Senate, will consider a proposal for UCT to 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.

The latter half of this proposal – to prohibit academic relationships with Israeli institutions that enable human rights violations – is purposefully phrased in broad and vague language. Ultimately, any Israeli academic institution might be argued to enable human rights violations, given the fact that research might benefit the Israeli government, or that Israeli universities are obliged to allow students to fulfil their national service obligations.

Furthermore, while the boycott movement claims to merely be against institutional co-operation with Israeli academics and not about boycotting individuals, attempts at institutional boycotts in South Africa have resulted in notable individual boycotts. A recent example of this is the dis-invitation last year of moderate Palestinian Professor Mohammed Dajani (and a number of Israeli scholars) from a conference at Stellenbosch University last year, because extremist pro-boycott activists did not like his view on the conflict and bullied the conference organisers into cancelling his invitation.

This motion, therefore, must be considered an attempt to enforce a complete ban on UCT’s contact with Israeli universities and scholars.

Here are nine reasons why you should attend the Senate meeting on 10 May, speak out against the proposal, and vote to reject it:

1. An enforced academic boycott of Israeli institutions will violate our academic freedom

Academic freedom is the principle that freedom of enquiry and freedom of association by faculty members and students is essential to the mission of an academic institution, and that academics should not have to fear institutional repercussions for thinking or communicating things with which others do not agree, or for associating with scholars others do not like.  

Some of humankind’s most important academic discoveries were highly controversial in their time, and people in power tried to stifle them, often on ‘moral’ grounds. An example of this is Galileo, who was tried and imprisoned for his view that Earth revolves around the Sun. Because of the fact that (even good) ideas can be controversial, freedom of academic enquiry – the protection of ideas from stifling authority – is now recognised by most reasonable people as an essential component of a university. This freedom necessarily includes choices about who one can learn with: one cannot be said to have freedom of enquiry unless they are also able to choose the circumstances in which that enquiry takes place.

Academic freedom and freedom of scientific is also enshrined in section 16(1)(d) of the Constitution of our Republic, as a fundamental aspect of the right to freedom of expression.

The proposed boycott is a clear violation of this indispensable principle, because it forces the University to adopt a particular political position as policy. When a political position becomes University policy, members of the University who choose not to take that position become subject to potentially severe consequences such as firing, or disciplinary record entries on a student’s academic transcripts. When members of a university have to fear serious repercussions for their choices of which scholars they can learn and study with, this undermines the entire academic project. Instead of being a space for free enquiry and the fearless exchange of ideas, the university becomes an indoctrination chamber for a narrow set of political interests.

Furthermore, academic freedom involves the freedom to collaborate with scholars in the field in which one is working. If universities and scholars start boycotting one another, this undermines the academic project as it will reduce co-operation, create boundaries between institutions and stifle dialogue across these boundaries. If we are not free to discuss and challenge ideas because of boundaries, this undermines scholars’ ability to advance human knowledge and understanding.

2. If we accept an enforced academic boycott of Israeli institutions, we are bound in principle to accept academic boycotts of many other countries, too

According to Human Rights Watch, human rights violations, crimes against humanity and/or war crimes are currently taking place in more than 90 countries and territories across the world.

Saudi Arabia continues its assault against civilians in Yemen, having already killed tens of thousands of innocent people. The Saudi government has murdered dozens of journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi, and continues to oppress women and LGBT people, who are thrown in prison or executed for ‘immorality’. Turkey, a prominent critic of Saudi Arabia, continues to persecute journalists, academics and politicians who criticise its President, Erdogan. In addition to dozens of other ongoing repressive practices, the Chinese government continues to operate ‘re-education’ camps for over one million Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, in an attempt to force them to disown their Islamic faith and distinct ethnic identity. In Myanmar, government forces have, since 2017, carried out genocide ethnic cleansing and mass gang rape against Rohingya Muslims. Almost 700 000 Rohingya have been forced to take refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Closer to home, on the African continent, human rights abuses and crimes against humanity have recently been observed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe, to name but a few.

If we are willing to sever ties with Israeli institutions on the basis of their enabling human rights abuses, we are morally bound to be willing to sever ties with institutions who play a similar role in other countries in which systematic human rights violations are taking place. This would severely impact UCT scholars’ ability to collaborate internationally, especially with scholars from the developing world.

On the other hand, if we are willing to single out Israeli human rights abuses as the only good justification for an academic boycott, we will find ourselves in the morally untenable position of regarding, as an institution, some victims of human rights abuses as being more ‘important’ or worthy of our institutional attention than others. A willingness to accept such inconsistency also raises doubt about whether the proposers of this motion have moral reasons for their proposal after all or are rather motivated by political and/or discriminatory intentions instead.

3. The free exchange of ideas can be valuable in ending human rights abuses

Scholars and academics are often the most liberally-minded people in society, and scholarship often plays an important role in influencing society towards a more moral position. Indeed, numerous Israeli scholars have been at the forefront of challenging Israeli government policy. Therefore, if we really care about ending human rights abuses, we should both want to empower progressive scholars to continue their good work and change the thinking of illiberal academics through critique and debate. We can do neither of these things if we are banned from associating with scholars on the basis of their governments’ human rights records.

4. Adopting a boycott policy against Israel will isolate UCT from the international academic community and damage its institutional reputation

Over 200 universities and higher learning institutions have considered similar Israeli academic boycott motions and rejected them, citing concerns about academic freedom, freedom of expression and discrimination by virtue of national origin. No prominent Western university has ever implemented an institutional boycott of Israeli institutions. This is because there is a near-universal belief in free societies that universities should serve as open, tolerant and respectful, cooperative and collaborative communities engaged in practices of resolving complex problems.

If UCT, through this motion, shows the international academic community that it does not share these fundamental values, this could have serious unintended consequences for UCT’s relationships with the world’s most valuable institutions. Moreover, it will lower UCT’s reputation in the eyes of donors and prospective students who hold mainstream views about the role of a university in society.

5. Boycotting Israeli institutions harms Arab scholars and students, too

A large proportion of Israel’s university-attending population are Arab. Many of these students go on to become prominent academics at universities such as the University of Haifa, the Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A systematic boycott of all these institutions will therefore result not only in Jewish Israeli scholars and students being negatively impacted, but dozens of thousands of Arab scholars and students as well. This defeats the purported reason for the motion, which is to benefit Arabs in Israel and the West Bank.

6. A boycott will limit the ability of UCT staff and students to freely debate and discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict

By adopting this motion, Senate, on behalf of UCT, would be taking a particular political stance on a controversial issue. The University would thus be articulating its support for a specific point of view and creating an ‘institutional line’ to be followed. Even if they had no desire for contact with scholars from Israeli institutions, staff members might be afraid to express opinions that disagree with the ideological position that Senate has ordained, for fear of being ostracised by colleagues, overlooked for promotion and research grants, or not having their contracts renewed. This, in turn, would discourage dissenting staff members from discussing this conflict in the classroom, potentially shutting down students’ ability to freely engage with the issue, too.

7. A boycott of Israeli institutions sets a dangerous precedent

If Senate and Council accept, in principle, that they should be allowed to dictate matters of political conscience and prevent members of the University from making up their own minds on these issues, they might be encouraged to do so on other issues, too. It is the role of neither Senate nor Council to prescribe political beliefs for members of the University community. Attributing these bodies such a role raises the risk of authoritarian control over the University, where the political views of the majority of an (unelected) body are allowed to determine what every else is allowed to say, think and do. At this point, the UCT will cease to be a University and instead become an ideological indoctrination chamber.

8. Academic boycotts are likely to further entrench the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than bring it to a resolution

According to Constitutional law expert Prof David Bilchitz, ‘the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement and its normative underpinnings (which can be freely accessed on its own website), clearly is premised upon the Jewish majority in Israel voluntarily acknowledging its own illegitimacy and being prepared to preside over the dissolution of its state. BDS perpetuates the notion that there is a zero-sum game between Jewish and Palestinian claims to Israel.’

The BDS movement, of which the proposers of this motion are part, views the Arab-Israeli conflict as an ‘either/or’ struggle: only one side can win, and have a legitimate claim to their national aspirations. For this reason, the movement offers no explicit solution other than perpetual conflict. Their rare attempts at offering a solution suggest support for one state, rather than using their activism to promote peaceful co-existence within the bounds of a two-state solution. This is exactly the kind of authoritarian logic that many believe has led Israel’s far-right-wing government’s unwillingness to end the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza.

Academic boycotts both play directly into this polarising politics and vindicate the actions of regressive Israeli government officials, who rely on polarisation and fear to win elections.

9. It is morally undesirable to punish individual academics for the shortcomings of their governments

 Academic boycotts can have serious repercussions for the careers of individual academics, who do not necessarily agree with the problematic government policies which the boycotts are targeting. It is unreasonable to subject these individuals to this harm where they have not committed actions which render them personally liable to sanction. This amounts to collective punishment. Just as we do not punish children for the crimes of their parents, or all adherents of a religion for the crimes of their co-religionists, so should we be hesitant to punish individual citizens for the wrongdoing of their governments.