SOUTH AFRICA: University severs ties with Ben-Gurion

Academics at the University of Johannesburg voted on Wednesday to end ties with Ben-Gurion University, after a six-month period granted to the Israeli institution to meet conditions for continued research collaboration, including the inclusion of Palestinian partners. The university stressed that it did not subscribe to an academic boycott of Israel.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) said in a statement that after a "protracted and spirited" debate" 60% of the senate, or 72 members, voted to allow a memorandum of understanding with Ben-Gurion to lapse on 1 April, while 40% of members voted for continued bilateral agreements.

The senate vote, the university stressed, "encourages academics at the University of Johannesburg, Ben-Gurion University and Palestinian universities to pursue research projects without formal institutional agreements".

But a fact-finding report released in mid-March by a UJ committee mandated to investigate the activities of Ben-Gurion, was less friendly. It found the university guilty of "institutional complicity and active collaboration with the Israeli military, occupation and apartheid practices" and concluded that the conditions set by UJ had not been met.

Following a flurry of media reports, Johannesburg's Vice-Chancellor Ihron Rensburg released a statement saying: "I need to make this quite clear. UJ is not part of an academic boycott of Israel."

He said the university believed the current situation in the Middle East made the formal agreement with Ben-Gurion an "insurmountable obstacle to either institution facilitating a wider dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian academics".

It had never been Johannesburg's intention to sever all ties with Ben-Gurion, Rensburg added, "although it may have been the intention of some UJ staff members." He said he had discussed the university's position with Ben-Gurion University President of Rivka Carmi during a visit there in January.

In response to the severing of ties, Carmi said: "The only losers in this decision are the people of South Africa". The Israeli university said the collaborative research into water had been "designed to solve real problems of water contamination in a reservoir near Johannesburg".

Ben-Gurion restated it commitment to advance academic freedom, regional cooperation and social justice through education and research, and said it would continue working with Palestinian academics in water, health care and sustainable development.

Johannesburg's 25-year relationship with Ben-Gurion, which dates back to South Africa's apartheid era and currently includes research collaboration in the areas of water purification and energy technologies, came under the spotlight following the launch of a petition last September that questioned the terms of the relationship.

The petition campaign received weighty support. It was signed by more than 400 South African academics including nine vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors as well as leading public figures such as Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, former defence minister Ronnie Kasrils, law professor John Dugard, novelist Breyten Breytenbach, poet Antjie Krog and popular cartoonist Jonathan 'Zapiro' Shapiro.

Universities in Israel were an "an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice," Tutu wrote recently. "While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation."

The UJ's senate met at the end of September 2010 and threatened to end its relationship with Ben-Gurion unless it worked with Palestinian universities on research projects and stopped its "direct and indirect support for the Israeli military and the occupation".

The university said in a statement at the time: "The conditions are that the memorandum of understanding governing the relationship between the two institutions be amended to include Palestinian universities chosen with the direct involvement of UJ."

The petition campaign led to 38 Nobel laureates - many not Jewish and most of them based in the United States - to issue a statement condemning boycotts and divestment campaigns against Israeli academics and academic institutions.

"Academic and cultural boycotts, divestments and sanctions in the academy are antithetical to principles of academic and scientific freedom, antithetical to principles of freedom of expression and inquiry, and may well constitute discrimination by virtue of national origin," the laureates said.

Professor Adam Habib, Deputy Vice-chancellor of Johannesburg, said the university had sent a delegation to Palestine to determine whether a Palestinian university would participate in the academic relationship between UJ and Ben Gurion.

"All the Palestinian universities said they would not be party to such an agreement because they felt academic freedom was not prioritised by Israeli universities," Habib told the South African Press Association. Ben-Gurion had been prepared to partner with a Palestinian university.

Habib said academics from UJ were free to continue existing partnerships with Ben-Gurion, but that would be something for individuals to determine and would depend on whether the Israeli university would allow this.

The huge Congress of South African Trade Unions welcomed the decision to end the research relationship and said in a statement that it "translates into the first South African institutional boycott of an Israeli institution" and was a "watershed moment" in a growing boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

"This resonates with us in South Africa, as we are aware of the importance of international solidarity and realise the role that it played in dismantling South African apartheid."

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which represents Jewish communities in the country, condemned the UJ decision as a blow to academic and scientific freedom. It said the decision flew in the face of government policy, which maintains relationships and engages with both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Rather than availing itself of a scientific cooperative project in the water purification field that has enormous potential benefits for South Africa, UJ has chosen instead to further the agenda of a group of anti-Israel agitators," said board chairman Zev Krengel in a statement.

He added that South Africa had made a successful transition from division and conflict to national unity and peace through willingness by all sides to engage with and understand one another's point of view.

"We are disappointed that UJ has gone against this ethos and acted in a way more reminiscent of apartheid-era intellectual censorship," Krengel said.