By Mats Elliott
This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 4 of VARSITY News
The University of Cape Town Council has turned back for further revision a move by the UCT Senate to support an academic boycott of Israeli universities, sparking further debate about UCT’s role in sanctioning Israeli institutions.
The proposed resolution would force UCT to sanction all Israeli universities that are operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) or that are violating human rights in the region. The UCT Council said it sent the proposal back to the university’s Senate because certain aspects required further clarification, including the sustainability of the resolution.
Despite sending the proposal back to Senate, the Council affirmed that it denounced the human rights violations taking place in the OPTs, and that UCT reserved the right to dissociate itself from universities that enable such violations.
UCT’s Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF), a pro-Palestinian student group, advocated for the proposal, arguing that it would create economic pressure on Israel to change its policy. PSF argued that Israel is a colonialist, apartheid state that discriminates against Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. PSF members have also argued that the state of Israel lacks legitimacy, stating that it was founded by forcibly displacing many Palestinians from the area.
The group hoped the boycott of Israeli universities would place pressure on the state of Israel, as some Israeli universities support the state and its military with new technologies and their academic work.
“[A] boycott of all Israeli universities shows that there is absolutely no support of Israel,” said Salmaan, a member of PSF who requested to have his last name omitted. “This [is] pushing for the fact that we don’t support the establishment of the state itself.”
The proposal was opposed by groups like the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), which claimed that the proposal was biased against Israel and wrote in their open letter to the UCT Council that “procedural fairness has been in question throughout this entire process.”
A former PSF chairperson noted that questions about procedural fairness were difficult to avoid, given that an academic boycott was entirely unprecedented at UCT. This lack of a precedent made it unclear what procedure UCT should have followed from the start.
While many have voiced their opinions on the perceived morality or immorality of the proposed boycott, relatively little attention has turned to how this decision came to be made.
The first call for an academic boycott of all Israeli universities was made in 2014 by the PSFand the Student Representative Council. At this point, UCT management rejectedthis demand outrightdue to “how controversial and highly contested the interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, including disputes over the facts and interpretations of motives,” according to a letter from former Vice Chancellor Max Price.
Three years later, in 2017, the proposal received greater recognition from UCT administrators when Max Price, then the university’svice chancellor, accepted a memorandum at a PSF rally, agreeing to instigate an academic process to decide the fate of the boycott. The proposal outlined that the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) would discuss the proposedboycott, followed by the Senate and the Council, regardless of whether the boycott was accepted or rejected in the previous meeting. The UCT Council’s resolution would ultimately determine the fate of the proposal, independently of what had been decided in the previous AFC and Senate meetings.
This procedure was complicated by the fact that, after the AFCdiscussed the boycott, there were multiple proposals that had to be considered. After considering written submissions and speeches from the PSF and the SAUJS, the AFC decided to reject the PSF’s proposalto boycott all Israeli universities. Instead, theAFCmade their own proposal which stated that“UCT will not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli universities operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), or any Israeli universities enabling the gross violation of human rights in OPTs.”
This decision was a significant departure from the boycott the PSF and the SRC proposed, since the PSF argued that there are human rights abuses that take place outside of the OPTs – including in Israel -that are enabled by, for example, Israeli universities’ technologies being employed by Israel’s military.
Both motions were presented to UCT Senate, and although neither the PSF nor the SAUJS were permitted to attend this meeting, they could submit written motivations.
On the 15th of March 2019, the AFC was able to pass a boycott of all Israeli universities located in or supporting human rights abuses in the OPTs through the Senate. The recent decision by the Council to reject the proposal was a setback for the supporters of an academic boycott.
The decision was partially a victory for groups supportive of Israel, although not entirely, as the Council also stated they condemned Israel’s human rights abuses and didn’t rule out supporting a future boycott.
Among PSF students, there was disagreement about the Council decision. Some saw this as a victory, since it seemed to them that the Council had committed itself to supporting a boycott after deliberating with the Senate, while others were more critical.
“Even though the proposed academic boycott went through all structures such as the AFC and the Senate, the Council undermined these structures by going against the decision to boycott,” said a former member of PSF’s committee, who wished to remain unnamed. “It is rare for council to go against a Senate decision and it speaks to wider questions around how democratic the UCT space is.”