A UCT boycott of Israel would be disastrous


THIS week, the University of Cape Town (UCT) Senate is set to reconsider whether to support an ill-thought resolution passed in relation to Israel’s academic institutions in March this year. The resolution, rejected by the University Council and sent back to the Senate  for reconsideration, proposes that UCT 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”.

Whether UCT should boycott Israeli academic institutions is not a matter comparable to rocket science or neurosurgery. It’s a simple matter, in my view. One that requires each and every one of us to embrace and respect the fact that academic freedom is supreme.

Many people, motivated and fueled by prejudice against Israel – the Jewish state – find it enormously difficult to uphold the values pertaining to academic freedom and free speech in relation to Israel. This is perplexing, given the current turbulent state of the world we live in.

My alma mater, UCT, where I studied economics and information systems, is currently being pressured by pro-Palestine lobby groups to reject and cut ties with Israeli academic institutions. In my opinion, this is a real shame that needs to be highlighted by those who study and research on international affairs.

I have always seen academic institutions as holy sites of free speech, variety of thoughts, ideological debate, and many other forms of intellectualism that challenge and ask deep questions on human history. I strongly believe every citizen of the world must see universities as such.

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is a political matter that needs to be openly debated on UCT campus – and all other universities around the world. The robust debate and engagement is what will hopefully produce a resolution in that troubled region. There ought not to be any form of repression on those who, amongst their many arguments, say Israel has a right to exist in the Middle East.

The academic boycott by UCT would indicate prejudice against Israel – and suppress the diversity of views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The act of this kind would totally be reprehensible.

There is a great deal that can be, and must be, criticised about Israeli government policies – whether domestic or foreign. This is true for every government around the world – including our own helmed by Cyril Ramaphosa here in South Africa.

No state is pure. It is our responsibility as global citizens to keep our statesmen in check. And the notion that we can treat universities – academic institutions – the same way we treat government responsible for policy making is absurd. Universities are places where government policy is debated – and must be debated.

I was very fortunate to visit both Israel and Palestine last December. The purpose of the trip was not leisure – it was journalism. Journalism of which the objective was to understand the Israeli-Palestine conflict. To hear both sides on the matter – on what they believed are the causes – and ought to be resolutions that could culminate in peace between the two countries.

The insights from the tour made me understand the political situation between Israel and Palestine better. What touched me the most was seeing ordinary Israelis and Palestinians working together to promote peace between the two countries.

As part of our tour in Israel, we visited Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Be’er Sheva. It was a remarkable experience. Ben-Gurion University showcases Israeli’s world class scientific research. It is Israel’s type of research that can provide solutions to the pressing problems we face in Africa and around the globe.

That country’s capability to farm in deserts and produce food for itself using technologically advanced irrigation methods is one of the many things that need to be lauded. South Africa’s academic institutions must improve and seek to improve relations with Israel in order to gain knowledge on a wide range of scientific research fields.

If UCT succumbs to pro-Palestine lobby groups and boycott Israeli universities – the act would alienate the United States of America (US) – Israel’s major ally. This would surely result in US institutions and donors cutting ties with UCT – which would be damaging.

UCT as an academic institution must commit to protecting academic freedom and free speech. This episode is a test on UCT’s leadership. They must never succumb to political pressures – doing so would be harmful to the institution and the society at large. PM



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