Tensions are running high ahead of a vote by the University of Cape Town’s council on a resolution to start an academic boycott of Israel.
This comes after UCT’s senate took a resolution in favour of a proposal for the institution not to enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories.
UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the senate resolution was passed at a meeting held on March 15, and would be considered by the university council at a meeting on Saturday.
SA Zionist Federation chairperson Rowan Polovin said the proposed academic boycott of Israeli institutions would have a detrimental impact on the university’s commitment to academic freedom, as enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution.
Polovin said a university that strives for excellence should never restrict the ability of its students to engage freely with any international academic or institution.
“This measure, targeted only against Israel, will discriminate against Jewish and Christian students and academics who have a religious, spiritual and historical connection to Israel,” Polovin said.
“UCT must reject this measure out of hand and prove its commitment towards freedom and non-discrimination,” he said.
The federation has asked UCT alumni for “urgent assistance in taking a stand against this dangerous attempt to attack Israel and undermine academic freedom at UCT”.
Polovin said over the past two years there had been a concerted campaign at UCT to pressurise the university to impose an academic boycott against Israeli universities.
He said despite the senate comprehensively rejecting an academic boycott motion in November 2018, it was reintroduced in an amended format last week and the senate passed it with a 62-43 margin (10 abstentions).
In defending the resolution, UCT Student Representative Council chairperson Asanda Lobese said it was the responsibility of the institution to engage with moral questions of the societies.
“The institution can not go silent about such a matter,” she said.
Movement Progress SA chairperson Tami Jackson said they were not surprised by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC)’s tactical and careful wording of their recommendation, which follows its “obsession” to push through the boycott measure over a year of its deliberations on the issue.
Jackson said the rewording, however, did not mitigate the fact that the proposed measure was a serious threat to academic freedom at UCT.
She said in a campaign last month, Progress SA highlighted the importance of academic freedom to the University. “In response to our questioning of university management’s attitudes, the Vice-Chancellor affirmed that UCT is committed to open debate and academic freedom,” Jackson said.
“We therefore find it strange that the Vice-Chancellor and her deputies presided over the meeting of senate that approved this proposal without so much as registering a single reservation that it would harm the freedom of academics and students to associate with whomever they choose.”
She said any limitation of academic freedom would severely damage UCT’s reputation as a bastion of academic inquiry. “It comes at the expense of ordinary students and staff wishing to pursue their academic activities freely.
“This, of course, was expected due to UCT’s ever-increasing hostility towards both academic and intellectual freedom across its various disciplines.”
The Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions Movement, an anti-Israel lobby group at the forefront of the campaign to isolate the Jewish state, did not respond to calls for comment.