Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Why South Africa's academic boycott of Ben Gurion University took hold

On 23 March, the University of Johannesburg in South Africa cut all ties with Ben Gurion University in the Negev in Israel. Salim Vally is a senior researcher at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Johannesburg and the coordinator of the Education Rights Project. While he was in Montreal in May 2011, giving a lecture at McGill University in Montreal entitled .

LILLIAN BOCTOR: On 23 March, the University of Johannesburg decided not to continue the Memorandum of Understanding with the Ben Gurion University in Israel. Can you tell me what this was about?

SALIM VALLY: Ever since the tragic events in Gaza in 2008-2009, where 1,400 people, largely civilians, were killed, the international movement against what we call apartheid in Israel has been galvanised.

The massacre of the humanitarian activists on the flotilla has also given this movement an impetus. For us as South Africans it has resonance, because you know we called on the world to support our struggle by isolating the apartheid regime. And the call made by Palestinians using the inspiration of the South African call to boycott apartheid has really struck a chord amongst huge swaths of our population, including academics, church leaders and trade unionists.

Now, Ben Gurion University had a relationship with what was then called the Rand Afrikaans University prior to it becoming the University of Johannesburg. This was during the apartheid days. And there is enough evidence to show this collaboration. And a lot of this collaboration was around military research and development, nuclear links. So this is well established.

With the University of Johannesburg, in the past few years many of these links have been reexamined. There was an attempt to resuscitate this link with Ben Gurion University in August 2009 and a number of academics felt that this relationship was problematic. So when a memorandum of agreement was signed, immediately there was a petition by academic staff, trade unions and students. It received overwhelming support. But beyond the university, very prominent South Africans like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the president of the union that has 1.8 million members, Cosatu, the student organisations, writers like Breyten Breytenbach, Antjie Krog, and hundreds of academics in other universities in South Africa supported breaking links with Israel.

You know it was a debate that we held not only at our university, but throughout the country over a period of 18 months. In these 18 months it was a thoroughly democratic debate. Different points of views were contested. There were seminars and conferences. In the university they established task teams, committees, fact-finding missions. The vice chancellor, the deputy vice chancellor and other members of the management executive committee of the university went to Israel, met with all parties. The president of Ben Gurion University, academics there, as well as Palestinian academics and unions came back and gave a report. On two occasions it went to both the Senate and the Council, the highest decision making bodies of the university. The debates were the longest debates in the history of the university. And at the end of the day late in March it was put to the vote. This was by secret vote in the Senate and almost two-thirds of the Senate members voted on the basis of all the reports and discussions to sever links with Ben Gurion University.

You know I need to emphasise that the decision was not taken on the basis of a few slogans or just rhetoric. It was the culmination of very scholarly work. And this is one of the unintended consequences of this saga. Because from the outset, on our side, those of us that felt it important that we needed to show solidarity with our Palestinian colleagues, they don’t have academic freedom, you know, and we use various reports. UNESCO issued a very comprehensive report on what Palestinian academics have to confront almost every day of their lives, including students. The checkpoints, the inability to travel if you are in Gaza to attend international conferences or for students and professors from Gaza to the West Bank or to go to Israel, there are so many restriction and constraints, things we take for granted as academics, and these issues affect our work as academics and clearly UNESCO is not a radical group or anything and they provided the evidence.

When the University of Johannesburg resuscitated their agreement in August 2009 (with Ben Gurion University) in that period very shortly before that time, Amnesty International wrote a very meticulously compiled report very evocatively titled ‘Thirsting for Justice’ or ‘Troubled Waters’. It was a report on how Israel used water as a weapon against Palestinians. It was very clear that, first of all, there is an unequal and discriminatory allocation of water. The mountain aquifer, which is the only source for Palestinians in the occupied territory in the West Bank, 80 per cent of that water goes to Israelis and settlements. Only 20 per cent goes to Palestinians. Palestinians’ usage is a fraction per person of the usage of those in the settlements. The settlements have lush gardens and swimming pools. Palestinians have very serious problems with water. We also have a situation where Israelis can draw on other sources of water including all the water from the Jordan River that goes to Israel, but Palestinians only have the aquifer. In the Gaza area, they have the coastal aquifer, but that’s brackish water. They need the power plant to desalinate the water and their only power plant in Gaza has been constantly under attack.

Palestinians need permits to put together waste facilities, wastewater facilities. These permits are not forthcoming. In the one case when a permit was given the Israeli army vetoed the granting of this permit. And in fact there was a German company that was given the contract to build this wastewater plant and the Israeli government had to pay this company millions of shekels because they broke the contract. The chief engineer of the power plant in Gaza was just recently kidnapped in Ukraine from a train. The Israeli government has acknowledged this, that he is in an Israeli jail. He was on his way to Ukraine to meet and spend time with his Ukrainian wife and his six kids. And there’s been a tragedy in Gaza with water and the sewage works and people have died terribly because of that. So, you know what I'm saying is that this decision is based on a number of reports, reports that we’ve compiled. We sent a delegation to look at the water issue and Ben Gurion University was given ample opportunity to deny or counter these claims, claims which there is ample evidence for.

LILLIAN BOCTOR: Where they (academics at Ben Gurion University) working with academics at the University of Johannesburg on these water issues?

SALIM VALLY: Well yes. And a minority of academics at the university wanted these links, including the person, the professor who was involved in this water research. And I’ve published an opinion piece in the Mail and Guardian newspaper and this piece starts off with a correspondence I had with this professor. And I said that we would like to, those of us who signed the petition, meet with you, a very collegial letter, we would like to meet with you to discuss this and to discuss the water report of Amnesty International. And his response, which I quoted in the article, was that you know, I am not interested in politics, this is political. I’m just merely interested in scientific research around water.

And that was the beginning of my article. And I ask the question whether science is neutral. Can it be neutral, apart from of course pure mathematics and pure science? But something that Einstein realised a long time ago, that it wasn’t merely the splitting of the atom. It was the atomic bomb later on. And so there is this social responsibility. Which doesn’t mean that Einstein shouldn’t have used his knowledge for that, but that Einstein himself regretted the use of that knowledge for destructive purposes. Everybody from Descartes to Kaplan to Bronofsky to Einstein all realized the social purpose of science.

In Britain, for example, Stephen Rose, who’s a world-renowned neurobiologist and his partner Hilary Rose is a sociologist of science. And they co-founded in the late 60s, as a result of the American use of napalm and Agent Orange, an organisation of scientists called the Society for Social Responsibility in Science. And these are the same individuals who today are part of BRICUP, the British Committee for Universities of Palestine. The same individuals, many of whom, and it’s a pity that one has to say these things, but many of whom are Jewish, and for them it’s a question of humanity to support Palestinians. And Hilary and Steven make the point that science is not neutral. In terms of this particular issue, there’s ample evidence how geologists and hydrologists and urban planners and geographers have been complicit in continuing an illegal occupation in Palestine. And therefore this issue has thrown up this debate which is a very rich debate.

Scientists in Germany worked together with academics around the world, even when they were developing this very unscientific program on eugenics, trying to show that one so-called race - it’s a biological myth of course - is superior than another and they experimented on human beings in the concentration camps. But yet there were liberal and left scientists because of this notion of academic freedom.

LILLIAN BOCTOR: So this notion of academic freedom…that’s one of the criticisms that has come out of certain sectors of South African society, that by not continuing the memorandum of understanding with Ben Gurion University, you are not allowing academics to have this freedom. How do you respond to that?

SALIM VALLY: Yes absolutely. In South Africa and elsewhere and in Canada as well, the response is fairly simple. One is that academic freedom becomes meaningless and bereft of any practical possibilities if it is not cognisant of the conditions of that particular society where academic freedom is supposed to exist. And academic freedom has to be sensitive to conditions of genocide as I have just mentioned, of occupation and in our case apartheid. And there are many leading South Africans today who recognise that we would not have the academic freedom we have today if there wasn’t a boycott campaign, that many white South African academics would merrily continue not raising their voices against apartheid if they weren’t pressured in one way or the other. Life was great! And of course today we have academic freedom for all, at the time we had academic freedom for a few.

So in Palestine/Israel, Palestinian academics don’t have academic freedom, including increasingly Israeli academics who dissent from the main stream. The Knesset has passed this law now making it a seditious offence, a treasonous offence, if you support boycott divestment sanctions. So the other important thing, people say that you know there are countries where more people are killed, look at the Congo, look at Darfur. Why pick on Israel?

The difference is that in countries like Zimbabwe or Iran, or elsewhere, there is a sanctions campaign. They are being isolated by the West. But in fact Israel, despite violating major humanitarian and human rights law, are privileged, and are pampered. Look at Canada for example, the Harper government how it has privileged and pampered Israel despite human right violations. That’s the difference. The second difference is that in Zimbabwe or the Congo or elsewhere, academics have not called on the world to boycott their academy. But Palestinian academics have, in this case the victims, they have, like we did in South Africa. So for those reasons we think our defence of academic freedom is the real defence. Judith Butler, one of the greatest living philosophers of our times, has written extensively on why she supports the academic boycott and this is a person that you cannot fault in terms of her history in support of academic freedom.

LILLIAN BOCTOR: What do you think this boycott will accomplish?

SALIM VALLY: Well, it is a precedent setting case. It has inspired Palestinians despite the repression they face. It has allowed our society in South Africa to focus on this issue, to understand it better. It has resulted in many of our colleagues throughout the world reexamining links with Israel. So we think it will have a tremendous impact and it will pressurise the Israeli regime and what they are doing to the Palestinians.

LILLIAN BOCTOR: You work for education rights, also in South Africa. How has looking at the lack of academic freedom and rights in Palestine turned the mirror also on what’s happening in South Africa and how has it affected academics and the role of academics in South Africa itself?

SALIM VALLY: It is an extremely important case and throughout these 18 months there are parallels with what is research for. What is the role and purpose of the academy? Whose knowledge matters? Whose interests matter? So the question of water, for example, this water research with Ben Gurion didn’t look at the real issues. The pro-Israeli lobby had a spin. They said you know we have a water problem and you are denying this research and therefore you are responsible for us not having clean water. But of course what they don’t look for is who are the polluters. The mining industry in South Africa, you can’t look at water pollution without looking at the mining industry. You can’t look at water without looking at privatisation of water, with the maintenance of water, facilities and infrastructure. Those are the real issues. Whereas the Ben Gurion research didn’t deal with those issues. So, it also resulted in issues of academic freedom, of dissent, of challenging decisions, of democratising the academy so that professors and students and workers have a right to veto what the management does. So all of these issues were thrown up so it’s helped us look at our own society more critically while we dealt with this issue. So in that sense, it wasn’t separate from issues that we are confronted with.

LILLIAN BOCTOR: Thank you so much.

SALIM VALLY: You are welcome.


* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.