Divesting From Injustice

October 5, 2010 § 13 Comments

Last week the University of Johannesburg, following a campaign endorsed by over two hundred of South Africa’s most prominent public intellectuals, voted “not to continue a long-standing relationship with Ben Gurion University (BGU) in Israel in its present form” and to set conditions “for the relationship to continue.” Though falling short of an outright boycott of BGU, the UJ Senate set an ultimatum of six months for BGU to comply with two conditions:

(1) that the memorandum of understanding governing the elationship between the two institutions be amended to include Palestinian universities chosen with the direct involvement of UJ;

(2) the 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

Interestingly, the AP report following the vote, reprinted in both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, fails to mention the second condition nor anything pertaining to BGU’s direct complicity with the occupation of Palestine. But as the tireless campaigner for justice, Desmond Tutu , notes: “Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation.” (see Tutu’s full letter below the fold)

How subtle censorhip can be in the Middle East’s only democracy…

” My heart aches. I say, ‘Why are our memories so short.’ ” Jacob Zuma

‘The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own.

We can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. Yet we would be less than human if we did so. It behoves all South Africans, themselves erstwhile beneficiaries of generous international support, to stand up and be counted among those contributing actively to the cause of freedom and justice.” – Nelson Mandela, December 4 1997

Struggles for freedom and justices are fraught with huge moral dilemmas. How can we commit ourselves to virtue – before its political triumph – when such commitment may lead to ostracism from our political allies and even our closest partners and friends? Are we willing to speak out for justice when the moral choice that we make for an oppressed community may invite phone calls from the powerful or when possible research funding will be withdrawn from us? When we say “Never again!” do we mean “Never again!”, or do we mean “Never again to us!”?

Our responses to these questions are an indication of whether we are really interested in human rights and justice or whether our commitment is simply to secure a few deals for ourselves, our communities and our institutions – but in the process walking over our ideals even while we claim we are on our way to achieving them?

The issue of a principled commitment to justice lies at the heart of responses to the suffering of the Palestinian people and it is the absence of such a commitment that enables many to turn a blind eye to it.

Consider for a moment the numerous honorary doctorates that Nelson Mandela and I have received from universities across the globe. During the years of apartheid many of these same universities denied tenure to faculty who were “too political” because of their commitment to the struggle against apartheid. They refused to divest from South Africa because “it will hurt the blacks” (investing in apartheid South Africa was not seen as a political act; divesting was).

Let this inconsistency please not be the case with support for the Palestinians in their struggle against occupation.

I never tire of speaking about the very deep distress in my visits to the Holy Land; they remind me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like we did when young white police officers prevented us from moving about. My heart aches. I say, “Why are our memories so short?” Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their own previous humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon?

Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about all the downtrodden?

Together with the peace-loving peoples of this Earth, I condemn any form of violence – but surely we must recognise that people caged in, starved and stripped of their essential material and political rights must resist their Pharaoh? Surely resistance also makes us human? Palestinians have chosen, like we did, the nonviolent tools of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

South African universities with their own long and complex histories of both support for apartheid and resistance to it should know something about the value of this nonviolent option.

The University of Johannesburg has a chance to do the right thing, at a time when it is unsexy. I have time and time again said that we do not want to hurt the Jewish people gratuitously and, despite our deep responsibility to honour the memory of the Holocaust and to ensure it never happens again (to anyone), this must not allow us to turn a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians today.

I support the petition by some of the most prominent South African academics who call on the University of Johannesburg to terminate its agreement with Ben-Gurion University in Israel (BGU). These petitioners note that: “All scholarly work takes place within larger social contexts – particularly in institutions committed to social transformation. South African institutions are under an obligation to revisit relationships forged during the apartheid era with other institutions that turned a blind eye to racial oppression in the name of ‘purely scholarly’ or ‘scientific work’.” It can never be business as usual.

Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defence forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation. For example, BGU offers a fast-tracked programme of training to Israeli Air Force pilots.

In the past few years, we have been watching with delight UJ’s transformation from the Rand Afrikaans University, with all its scientific achievements but also ugly ideological commitments. We look forward to an ongoing principled transformation. We don’t want UJ to wait until others’ victories have been achieved before offering honorary doctorates to the Palestinian Mandelas or Tutus in 20 years’ time.

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§ 13 Responses to Divesting From Injustice

  • jonathan segal says:

    I can understand, and support, a boycott of the settlements, but a blanket boycott of Israel is morally wrong and politically counter-productive. Choosing to boycott an institution such as BGU is especially stupid, if you’re really interested in promoting the prospects for peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

  • hayate says:

    I applaud the University of Johannesburg for this move and salute the people who got things organised. The rest of the world needs to step up the BDS campaign against israeli apartheid. The israelis/zionists will will have to be forced to join the human race. They will never do so voluntarily.

  • guiltyfeat says:

    This is an interesting report which is fatally dishonest in its representation of the facts.

    Here is a link to the AP’s original story: http://apne.ws/cH1LVF

    The story does not include either of the conditions you mention here, and yet you suggest a sinister form or “censorhip [sic]” by the Israeli Press for leaving the second one out of their reprinted version.

    In fact there are several key points of the AP’s article you conveniently fail to mention.

    The opening sentence, for example: “University of Johannesburg professors rejected calls to sever ties with an Israeli university Wednesday…” Were you censoring the lead?

    How about this pertinent fact?: “”We believe in reconciliation,” Habib said. “We’d like to bring BGU and Palestinian universities together to produce a collective engagement that benefits everyone.”

    The universities have joint research projects and academic exchanges on biotechnology and water purification.”

    So, the actual story, as reported by the AP, is that Tutu’s campaign for divestment was rejected by the University of Jo’burg who preferred to foster a spirit of mutual understanding and collaboration between SA and the Israel.

    Like the commenter “hayate” above, I applaud this move by the University of Johannesburg. The difference between us is I have actually bothered to find out what this move was.

    This article is an unfortunate attempt at propaganda and not up to the usual high standards I have enjoyed here at Pulse.

    • ludek says:

      The point I was making is not that the Israeli press misrepresented the AP article but that the original AP press release, reprinted almost verbatim in the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, itself misrepresents the decision of the UJ’s Senate, by only mentioning the first (i.e. cooperation with Palestinian universities) of the two substantive conditions set in UJ’s ultimatum. By ommiting the second, politically much more potent condition, the articles in the Israeli press conveniently sidestep any discussion of the role that BGU (and other Israeli universities) play in sustaining the illegal occupation of Palestine. It is of course the latter which motivated the campaign in the first place.

      The opening sentence, for example: “University of Johannesburg professors rejected calls to sever ties with an Israeli university Wednesday…” Were you censoring the lead?

      No. I clearly stated that the decision “fell short of an outright boycott of BGU”.

      How about this pertinent fact?: “”We believe in reconciliation,” Habib said. “We’d like to bring BGU and Palestinian universities together to produce a collective engagement that benefits everyone.”

      How about these ‘pertinent facts’ (again, conveniently ommitted from both the AP and JP/Haaretz articles)?
      Habib: “Firstly it was important to identify with an oppressed population [Palestinians]”
      “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“.

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

      So, the actual story, as reported by the AP, is that Tutu’s campaign for divestment was rejected by the University of Jo’burg who preferred to foster a spirit of mutual understanding and collaboration between SA and the Israel.

      No. The actual story is that, falling short of an outright boycott, the UJ has set a 6-month ultimatum for BGU to comply with a number of demands. If these are not met, UJ will terminate its relationship with BGU.

      The difference between us is I have actually bothered to find out what this move was.

      I’ll let the readers decide on that one.

      • guiltyfeat says:

        In your post you wrote:

        “How subtle censorhip can be in the Middle East’s only democracy…” You were implying that the JP and Haaretz had exercised some form of censorship when they reprinted the AP report. Looking at the AP report, this is clearly not the case.

        Are you accusing the AP of political bias in not reporting the facts the way Al Jazeera did?

        I believe that academic boycotts are not productive. Given that this current campaign was initiated based on an agreement between UJ and Ben Gurion to work together on “water purification and micro-algal biotechnology research” it seems particularly misdirected.

        Furthermore, when Israeli institutions continue to be singled out over serial human rights abusers in China, Iran and South Africa’s friend and neighbor, Zimbabwe, I have to believe that the campaigners are more interested in punishing Israel than in the rights of the Palestinians.

        • ludek says:

          Perhaps propaganda, hegemonic discourse or ideology would have been a more appropriate choice of words. The basic point, however, remains: both Haaretz/JP misrepresented the event by ommitting any reference to the second condition which speaks explicitly of BGU’s ties with Israel’s military apparatus. The operative word in my statement was ‘subtle’.

          (Btw. having re-read the original AP release I noticed that the one quote JP/Haaretz did not decide to reprint:
          UJ Professor Farid Esack, who teaches Islamic studies, said he disagreed with the decision.
          “The university could’ve gone much further – Israel is an apartheid state and we should be disconnected from it,” he said.’)

          No journalism is free of political bias. The question is whose interests this bias serves.

          • guiltyfeat says:

            Could you please give specific examples of BGU’s ties to the military. The only thing I can find reported repeatedly is that BGU has a study program for air force pilots to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. Hardly damning stuff. Would you suggest that conscripted soldiers be denied a university education? If so, why?

            Interestingly, 40 of the university’s staff recently signed a petition calling on Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories. Sounds like a healthy democracy to me. It’s one of the reasons I love living here despite my opposition to some of my government’s policies.

            http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/the-rope-could-tear-1.1960

            (You should avoid using terms like “Israel’s military apparatus”. It makes you sound like a bit of a nutter. Would you refer to the US Army as “America’s military apparatus”? Over here we just call it the army.)

            • ludek says:

              I refuse to engage in a discussion with someone who is not willing to go through the trouble of looking up even the most basic facts of the question at hand. A list of BGU’s ties with military? Here you go: http://www.ujpetition.com/2010/09/attachment-ben-gurion-university-fact.html

              You began with accusing me of being “fatally dishonest” and promoting “propagada”. These acusations have turned out to be baseless and I have yet to hear you retract that statement.

              But it is obvious from your last comment that you know absolutely nothing about the nature of the academic & cultural BDS campaign. I suggest you carefully read the documents at http://www.pacbi.org/

              Israel – “a healthy democracy”? How wonderful indeed it must feel to so seamlessly succumb to the womb-like psychological warmth of power, propaganda and nationalism.

  • jonathan segal says:

    Ironically, BGU has recently come under fire from an Israeli right-wing organization as being a “hotbed” of leftist ideas and activities. If you really want to support the Palestinians a blanket boycott of Israeli academia is surely a case of “barking up the wrong tree”.

  • Alan Goater says:

    “Ironically, BGU has recently come under fire from an Israeli right-wing organization as being a “hotbed” of leftist ideas and activities. If you really want to support the Palestinians a blanket boycott of Israeli academia is surely a case of “barking up the wrong tree”.”

    So, according to Jonathan Segal, the supporters of the victims of Zionist supremacism should base their decisions about their support work on the judgements of the Zionist supremacists. Er… right… thanks for that.

  • jonathan segal says:

    Essentially, the points would like to make on the boycott are:
    1.The obvious double-standard: Israel is singled out for vilification while other countries with much worse human-rights records are not. Why not boycott the US and the UK for their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their horrendous civilian casualties, and Russia for its wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and China for its human-rights abuses and its policies in Tibet ,and practically all the Moslem and Arab countries? Do you boycott Zimbabwe? North Korea?
    2.A boycott that targets Israel’s academia , or Israeli artists and performers seeks to hit the most progressive sectors of Israeli society. I recall the case of Dr. Miriam Schlesinger who was “asked to resign” from the editorial board of a professional journal for the “crime” of being an Israeli – and this is a person who was the former head of the Israeli chapter of Amnesty International! Also – to get back to BGU- it’s not as if it’s an institute which practices racist, apartheid-style policies. There are Palestinian (Israeli-Arab) students, faculty and employees, who would also be boycotted.
    3.As I said , I support -and practice – a selective boycott of the settlements, because such a boycott targets specific Israeli policies and actions. A blanket , total boycott of Israel is apparently part of an effort to de-legitimize Israel itself, with which I can’t agree.

  • Matzpen says:

    To say that Boycotting Israel, or any pro-Palestinian opinions, is somehow “anti-Semitic” is a cynical use of the memory of the Holocaust to change the subject, and is odious falsehood. To say that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is itself anti-Semitic for it generalizes all Jews and creates an equivalence between all Jews everywhere and Israeli policies.

    http://sherrytalksback.wordpress.com/2010/10/07/is-boycotting-israel-anti-semitic/

  • jonathan segal says:

    Matzpen, who are you addressing? I don’t see anyone on this thread making that argument.

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