MA'AN NEWS: South Africa university mulls Israel boycott

By Ma'an News
Bethlehem [28_09_10]

The University of Johannesburg student senate will meet Wednesday to decide whether to terminate a partnership agreement with Israel's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The joint research project would look to solve water contamination issues in a reservoir near Johannesburg. Ben-Gurion says its expertise in desert water infrastructure means its assistance could benefit South Africans.

But 200 of South Africa’s leading academics and writers said in a statement Friday that they supported terminating the agreement on the grounds of Ben-Gurion's "direct collaboration and involvement with the Israeli military and occupation."

The university has been accused in the past of maintaining close ties with Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. It does weapons research for the army and offers special programs for Israeli air force pilots and scholarships for combat soldiers.

Ben-Gurion said it was disturbed by the nationwide academic petition and dismissed the allegations that it was abusing academic freedom, abusing human rights and being an accomplice to an apartheid government system in Israel.

"These accusations -- and others made in their statements -- are totally false and based upon ignorance and prejudice," university spokeswoman Faye Bittker said in a statement.

Considering its efforts to support minority groups, Bittker said, "It is ironic that Ben-Gurion University is asked to defend itself against such absurd accusations, which are motivated by extreme anti-Israel attitudes."
Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, received an honorary PhD from the university in 1997.

In his speech, Mandela praised Ben-Gurion as "a centre of excellence which represents the best in the traditions of the Jewish people: a sense of mission; internationalism; and inventiveness," according to a transcript provided by the university.

Mandela has not commented on the petition, but his former colleague anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu endorsed it Sunday in an open letter urging the Johannesburg students to "do the right thing, at a time when it is unsexy."

"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," Tutu wrote in The Sunday Times of South Africa. "BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation."

Tutu's letter also invoked Mandela, quoting an oft-repeated 1997 statement that "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."

The bid has also been endorsed by professors Breyten Breytenbach, John Dugard, Antjie Krog, Mahmood Mamdani, Kader Asmal, Allan Boesak, and Barney Pityana, the vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa.

The outcome of the senate’s decision will be announced Wednesday at its Soweto campus.