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The Academic Boycott of Israel

by PATRICK BOND and MUHAMMED DESAI

One of South Africa’s largest tertiary institutions, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in Durban, is a site of multiple controversies, but a near-disaster on Monday deserves more reflection because it points us in a positive direction: away from allying with the Israeli state and its apartheid policies during a time of heightened racism. A representative of Israel had been invited to speak but was then disinvited, after the university was called on by staff and students to respect the “academic boycott” of Israel.

From South Africa, the African continent and everywhere else, it is a critical time to step up pressure against the rogue regime in Tel Aviv. Israel’s hard-right leader, Benyamin Netanyahu, is in a dangerous career phase, preparing to bomb Iran; illegitimately holding thousands of Palestinian prisoners in worsening conditions; expanding settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank; terrorizing Gaza; and tightening his militaristic hold over the region.

Netanyahu’s approach to protecting his core constituency was unveiled at a recent cabinet meeting, in his paranoid description of African refugee immigration (mainly from Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan) last week: “if we don’t stop the problem (sic), 60,000 infiltrators (sic) are liable to become 600,000, and cause the negation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic (sic) state.”

Interior Minister Eli Yishai picked up the same theme: “They [African immigrants] should be put into holding cells or jails… and then given a grant and sent back.” In spite of police data confirming that Israelis commit more than twice as many crimes per person as African immigrants, Yishai claimed, “most African infiltrators are involved in crime.”

According to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, “In the last month, the number of hate crimes carried out by Israelis against Africans has risen tremendously. Multiple Molotov cocktails were thrown into houses of Africans in southern Tel Aviv on two separate occasions, a week apart.”

Then on Wednesday night, the logic of Netanyahu/Yishai unfolded at street level when hundreds of their followers attacked Africans in what was widely described as a race riot, leaving many injured, with a dozen Israelis arrested for violence.

In this context, the Israeli embassy had suggested an input to a UKZN audience about Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. The Wall is the topic of current controversy since Gush Shalom, a Tel Aviv-based human rights group opposed to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, has just demanded that last Saturday’s ‘Jerusalem Day’ in future be removed from Israel’s calendar of holidays.

As a celebration of the 1967 War and Occupation of Palestine, it involves a provocative march to the Wall through East Jerusalem. Political scientist, Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism, remarked last week, “I am disturbed that Yom Yerushalayim [Jerusalem Day] has become a nationalistic holiday, observed most publicly by the religious right. Too often, Yom Yerushalayim celebrations turn violent… most celebrations glorify the violent abuse of power by cruel extremists.”

As Lia Tarachansky of the Real News Network reported from Jerusalem on the weekend, “The celebrators marched through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter chanting ‘Muhammed is Dead’ and celebrating a 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron. Across the road roughly 600 Palestinians protested the celebration and the occupation of East Jerusalem. They were joined by Israeli peace activists.”

Pretoria-based Israeli official Yaa’kov Finkelstein had informed UKZN’s Social Sciences Dean Nwabufo Okeke-Uzodike that he “would like to give a lecture to staff and students on the Western Wall in Jerusalem” two days after this incident, but with less than 24 hours to go, UKZN Deputy Vice Chancellor Joseph Ayee emailed staff: “I have re-considered the sensitivities that the visit of the Israeli Deputy Ambassador has generated. Given the negative publicity that the visit will give UKZN, I hereby cancel the visit and the lecture.”

That the talk would “be held under a cloud with likely reputational damage for the institution is not in the interests of all of us,” observed Ayee. This resulted from a flurry of letters by senior academics including Lubna Nadvi, Rozeena Maart and Jerry Coovadia, as well as a vibrant protest planned by hip-hop artist, Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson, who generated similar opposition to Finkelstein’s co-sponsorship of the Hilton Arts Festival near Durban last year. Said Robinson, “Hosting the ambassador under the auspices of creating some kind of neutral space for dialogue is another blatant legitimization of Israel’s policies of oppression.”

A time for dialogue with Israel’s official representatives should wait until nonviolent public pressure against the regime mounts and the extreme power imbalance is lessened. As the Palestinian solidarity movement argues, this time will come – just as three-decade long sanctions were lifted against South Africa when in the early 1990s there was irreversible progress towards one-person one-vote democracy (implemented in April 1994) – only when Israel recognises the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self determination and:

  1. ends its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. guarantees the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinians citizens of Israel to full equity; and
  3. respects, protects and promotes the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Accepting these three conditions as comparable to the demand for democracy in South Africa, our local movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel got a boost in 2010 when South African Artists Against Apartheid formed with the announcement, “Collaborating with institutions linked to the state of Israel cannot be regarded as a neutral act in the name of cultural exchange.”

In this context, severe reputational damage for UKZN would have surely followed had the event gone ahead. Upon hearing of Finkelstein’s talk, Ramallah-based BDS strategist Omar Barghouti exclaimed, “Why would they invite an Israeli diplomat to UKZN at a time when even the SA government is advising its own ministers not to visit Israel, unless for absolute necessity? This is what complicity looks like!”

Barghouti continued, “Imagine in the 1980s if a Cuban or Palestinian university had invited a South African official to give a lecture? Wouldn’t the ANC and the great majority of South Africans have felt betrayed by their best friends in the world? Well, this is how Palestinians feel now if a South African institution is complicit with Israel.”

Universities should be at the forefront of the BDS movement – and thanks to the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israelthis has been the case since 2004 – because by making Israeli officials unwelcome, these opportunities actually open wide the door for learning political ethics, as at UKZN. Three years the same controversy arose at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, whose officials mandated a leading lawyer, Advocate Geoff Budlender, to investigate. Budlender concluded in favour of the BDS activists, saying that Wits University “could legitimately decide to make its facilities available to outside organisations only for certain purposes, and not to make them available for other purposes… [if] a speaker or activity might be so offensive.”

Likewise, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) was requested by over 450 leading South African academics – including nine vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors – to end its institutional relationship with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU) last year. UJ did terminate the relationship and, in effect, became the world’s first university to impose an academic boycott on Israel. Then, according to Nina Butler of the Rhodes University Palestinian Solidarity Forum, writing for the Mail & Guardian last week, another local university “was approached by BGU with a large amount of funding for water research, only to be told explicitly that their association and money was not desirable.”

At BGU itself, this week also an important moment for the academic boycott when a conference on Monday promoting ‘African Entrepreneurs’ was the subject of criticism, given the university’s ongoing collaboration with the Israeli military and the occupation of Palestine. Laudably, Zimbabwean historian Musiwaro Ndakaripa withdrew as a result of BDS commitments, but some Africans went ahead to violate the Palestinians’ boycott call, including the Angolan ambassador.

But elsewhere on the Israel-boycott front, matters are slowly improving. Last week, Pretoria’s Ambassador in Tel Aviv was summoned by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a formal reprimand because the SA Department of Trade and Industry ruled against ‘Made in Israel’ label in the marketing of Ahava Cosmetics, Soda Stream and other products from the illegal West Bank settlements. This extends existing labeling requirements of the European Union and Britain in a way that will facilitate the boycott of Israeli Settlement products, so Israel’s Foreign Ministry complained that it is “negatively tagging a state through a special marking, according to national-political criteria. Accordingly, this is a racist (sic) measure.” In reply: was it racist to oppose SA apartheid by boycotting the state institutions and the companies which made it tick, thus hastening the end of official racism?

Likewise, Israel’s Pretoria embassy spokesperson Hila Stern ratcheted up the rhetoric upon learning of UKZN’s about-face, describing it as a “campaign of intellectual terror.”

Quite right.  When in 2010 US Vice President Joe Biden labeled WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange a terrorist for revealing imperialism’s horrid secrets, and when the US State Department kept Nelson Mandela on its books as a terrorist from the early 1960s right through 2008 (when Congress forced a change), there was much these two men could be proud of. The UKZN academic activists who raised the stakes by further educating South Africa about solidarity ethics will hopefully continue to ‘terrorise’ the Israeli apartheid regime, just as did BDS ‘terrorise’ those on the side of South African apartheid decades ago.

Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and Muhammed Desai coordinates BDS South Africa.

Patrick Bond has a joint appointment in political economy at the Wits University School of Governance in Johannesburg, alongside directing the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban. His latest book is BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique (co-edited with Ana Garcia), published by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).

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