UJ's Solidarity with the Oppressed

UJ’s Solidarity with the Oppressed
By Professor Peter Alexander
Mail and Guardian

Debate about the boycott of Israeli academic institutions has been marked by misunderstandings about the position adopted by the University of Johannesburg. As one of the leading proponents of the motion adopted by UJ’s Senate perhaps I can provide some clarification. I do so as somebody who, in Britain, was actively involved in campaigning for a boycott of South African universities in the 1970s and 1980s.

UJ’s position was determined by a vote in its Senate. Most members of this body are senior professors. We are expected to raise funds for our research and develop international partnerships, so we could sympathise with the position of our colleagues engaged in water research with collaborators at Ben Gurion University.

Prior to our meeting we received about 20 documents prepared by university committees and by interested parties that included BGU. The debate itself lasted for well over two hours, and was the most serious in my 12 years at the university. Whatever the merits of the outcome, nobody complained about the process. Our deliberations revealed institutional maturity, and the decision we took reflected ongoing demographic transformation. This was university decision-making at its best.

The majority view was that professors cannot remain aloof from the long-term interests of their institution or the well-being of society at large. Under apartheid it was convenient for academics to claim that they were apolitical, but those days are over.

The essence of our stance was political, not moral. We confirmed a resolution with a preamble that stated simply: ‘In support of the principle of solidarity with any oppressed population (a defining principle emanating from our own history), we [UJ] should take [guidance] ... from peer institutions among the Palestinian population’. We then, in effect, set two tests.

First, could BGU find a Palestinian University that would partner itself and UJ in undertaking research on water (clearly an important concern for most Palestinians)? The answer was a resounding ‘no’. There was not a crack on the Palestinian side. None of the vice chancellors and no representatives of university academics supported a continuation of our agreement.

Secondly, could claims by pro-boycott Palestinians that BGU engaged in research that supported the Israeli military be verified? The answer was clearly ‘yes’. Moreover, the UJ delegation that visited Israel/Palestine was disappointed that BGU was not pro-active in rectifying historical disadvantages experienced by Palestinians.

Further, to the best of my recollection, there was nobody in our Senate who contested the fact that Palestinians were oppressed as a people. It wasn’t necessary to mention the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 or the illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. The nightly bombardment of Gaza in 2008/9 was etched on our minds. Members of our task team that visited the West Bank graphically portrayed the inhumanity of the great wall and the brutal treatment of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers that goes on daily.

If our position had been based on moral criteria we could reasonably be accused of inconsistency or even hypocrisy. There is no doubt that oppression exists elsewhere in the world, and that repression is sometimes worse, with greater loss of life. Moreover, other universities engage in military research (including, presumably, some in South Africa). Why not boycott Chinese universities, or Harvard, we are asked?

Struggles against oppression take different forms, with different demands for solidarity. To my knowledge, there has been no call from the people of China to boycott its universities. The idea is absurd. On the other hand, there have sometimes been requests to support Chinese clothing workers by boycotting particular brands, and I would hope that UJ would respond positively to such an appeal.

There are differences between Israel today and South Africa under apartheid, but there are similarities too, and one of these concerns academic boycotts as a form of solidarity. In the 1970s, when I was a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, we took up the call, by, for instance, persuading academics to stop acting as examiners for South African universities. Taken in isolation this was petty. But it was part of a process of delegitimising the apartheid regime, thus placing pressure on the British government and boosting the morale of anti-apartheid fighters. Of course, this is precisely what worries supporters of the Israeli government today.

One is sometimes told that our campaigns isolated local opponents of apartheid (nobody ever suggested that students suffered from the loss of an examiner or two). In 1985 I was sent to South Africa to establish contacts between workers here and in Britain. Some campaigners worried that boycotts and disinvestment might be hurting the workers they were designed to assist, but in meetings with key figures such as Alec Erwin and Moses Mayekiso it was made clear that unions here welcomed our solidarity. From those at the forefront of the struggle - whether in the unions, or the UDF, or the churches, or the liberation movements – I never heard anything but praise for our meagre efforts.

However, we were not naive or inflexible. At SOAS we knew of one academic who undertook research in South Africa, but her work was broadly sympathetic to the struggle, and the ANC either encouraged her or turned a blind eye, and we didn’t complain. My 1985 visit caused a very minor controversy, with some hardliners in Britain claiming that I was breaking the boycott. But activists I met then, remain comrades today. To get here it was necessary to obtain a new passport at short notice. Trade unionists at the Passport Office in London usually ensured maximum delays for anyone wishing to visit the land of apartheid, but they ensured that I received mine within a day (a record I’m told).

These are not tales of double standards. They are part of the reality of doing the best one can to provide effective solidarity. With regard to the case in hand, leaders of the Palestinian ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign’ have made it clear that they would like to see an end to official relationships that give legitimacy to Israeli institutions, but they have no objection to individual academics sharing their research and ideas.

There is no reason why UJ scholars directly involved in this affair should not sustain a fruitful relationship with their BGU counterparts. Of course BGU will withdraw funding, but this was a relatively small amount, about a million rand a year. The academics involved are world-class scientists, and they should be able to find an alternative benefactor without too much difficulty. However, we should not overstate the role of scientists in solving problems such as water shortages. In South Africa these mainly exist as part of the general crisis of service delivery, and in Gaza science cannot be blamed when 90-95 percent of the water supply is contaminated.

In the debate that has followed our decision, it is sad to see supporters of the Israeli government maligning particular individuals. Archbishop Tutu and other signatories of the UJ petition were condemned in an official BGU document as ‘external agitators’, as if they had no interest in freedom or the future of UJ. Similarly, David Hirsh, your opinion writer from London, dismisses our Vice Chancellor, Prof. Rensburg, as a spin doctor, implying that his comments to the media lack principle and honesty.

Hirsh goes too far though when he accuses UJ of ‘legitimising an anti-Semitic boycott’ and ‘incubating anti-Semitic ways of thinking’. These comments smack of a man who knows he is losing an argument. For myself, I am proud to have spent half a century opposing racism, including anti-semitism. And I am proud to be part of a university that has taken a principled stand in providing solidarity with the oppressed (on whatever basis they are oppressed), not only in South Africa, but in Israel too.

Peter Alexander is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg and holds the South African Research Chair in Social Change.