The University of Johannesburg debate on academic boycotts

Guest Post from South Africa

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) Faculty of Law seminar, questioning whether academic boycotts are justified, was on held on 13 May. This event was noteworthy for a number of reasons and some background context is important in highlighting its achievements.

Initially, the Department of Sociology and Faculty of Law had agreed to co-host the seminar and endorsement had been received by the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. It was planned to be a half-day symposium, however with the later inclusion of two anti-boycott speakers from abroad, David Hirsh (Engage) and Joel Fishman (Scholars for Peace in the Middle East), the event was augmented to a full day affair. However, due to various objections (including the accusation that it had become “a vehicle for a propaganda response” because the inclusion of the two international speakers was a result of a well funded anti-boycott campaign supported by the Israeli state!), a speaker who is a key figure in the boycott campaign withdrew from the event, the Faculty of Humanities revoked its support and the seminar was moved to the Faculty of Law (although none of the participants are scholars of Law) and subsequently reduced to a single panel of four speakers.

Apart from having resisted various pressures of censorship from within the Humanities, the seminar was successful in achieving balance, bringing together scholars with divergent views, establishing rigorous academic debate and creating a space for a nuanced discussion on the issue of boycotts.

Furthermore, the seminar was the first event which allowed Faculty members and students outside of Senate the opportunity to engage on the topic.

The Faculty of Law is to be commended for providing the opportunity for this seminar and remaining committed to UJ’s key values: academic freedom, integrity and respect for diversity and human dignity (among others). Further such efforts would do well for UJ’s impaired moral integrity as a result of the boycott of BGU. In the end, the UJ debate on academic boycotts was a display of academic freedom in relation to issues that have become highly contested at UJ. The fact that the Faculty of Humanities could not recognise this is deeply disappointing but not surprising given that this is where the impetus for the boycott has emerged.

8 Responses to “The University of Johannesburg debate on academic boycotts”

  1. David Hirsh Says:

    Who do I apply for in the “Israeli State” to refund my air ticket?

  2. Absolute Observer Says:

    Thanks for the background.
    This may be a more difficult question to answer, but I’;; ask it anyway.
    What was/is the “atmosphere” at the University whilst all this was going on? Did it generate a “hostile environment” for those students and faculty who argued against the boycott (regardless of their views on Israel’s actions)? And, if so, how were such concerns dealt with by the University and those supporting the petition?

    Thanks,
    AO

    • South African Says:

      I felt guarded about my position and my experience was not pleasant. I know that many first year Jewish students raised the issue of their safety with the SA Union of Jewish Students. During Israel-Apartheid week, which was held two weeks before the Senate vote, three Jewish students were attacked at WITS (neighbouring university) and our students were concerned that it could happen at our campus too.

      I am not part of Senate so cannot comment on how it was dealt with there.

  3. Absolute Observer Says:

    Thanks for the background.
    This may be a more difficult question to answer, but I’;; ask it anyway.
    What was/is the “atmosphere” at the University whilst all this was going on? Did it generate a “hostile environment” for those students and faculty who argued against the boycott (regardless of their views on Israel’s actions)? And, if so, how were such concerns dealt with by the University and those supporting the petition?

    Thanks,
    AO

  4. Absolute Observer. Says:

    Well David,
    According to Steven Rose of UCU and as noted in Engage comments of the past, the anti-boycott movement in UCU was (is?) funded by a secret cabal acting somewhere between the Israeli state and its embassies.
    I suggest that you address the relevant correspondence to,
    “The Lobby”.
    I am sure it will reach its destination, After all, everyone seems to know of its existence, so the address cannot be that hard to find!

    Failing that, and following Sean Wallis’ insights, you clould try Lehman Brothers.
    Or, if that fails, you could try, a la Mike Cushman, the Labour Party (or at least its “Jewish MP’s)
    Or, if that fails, you could try, as Jenny Tonge suggests, the Lib Dems.

    So, may choices, so many choices.

  5. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    “…a speaker who is a key figure in the boycott campaign withdrew from the event…”

    It has often been argued (not least, I’ll admit, by me) in these columns that the supporters of BDS actually lack evidence of the assertions that they make as to Israel being the worst breacher of human rights in the whole world. They often, when challenged for evidence, merely repeat their previous assertions, perhaps in different words, introduce new ones, or attempt to change the subject.

    The response they most fear, when we refuse to accept their assertions, is the continued demand for evidence (witness my exchanges with Ran Greenstein, linked to below, in which he consistently fails to respond to repeated requests for evidence). The decision of the “key figure in the boycott campaign” to withdraw from the debate does suggest that they feared having to face demands to produce real, hard evidence in place of the assertions they usually get away with.

  6. Absolute Observer. Says:

    Thank you for your response.

    Coincidentally, someone on another site referred to this motion at UCU, and wondered why they were not bound to carry out the same exercise within the Union itself.

    And, lest I be misunderstood. it is not a case of “silencing” debate, but of UCU ensuring that a debate takes place that does not give rise to actual or potential threats of violence or intimidation of Jewish members.

    After all, is that not what Universities are meant to do – permit reasonable and rational discussion of contentious issues (from nuclear power to the war on terror, from religious pluralism to string theory, etc.) without it degenerating into bullying and violence?

    “66 Equality Impact Assessments – National Executive Committee
    Congress notes:
    the requirements on universities and colleges to carry out equality impact assessments.

  7. SCOTLAND’S LITERARY SHAME: BEN COHEN | RUTHFULLY YOURS Says:

    [...] that some U.S. boycott activists feel they have to lie about their alleged successes — in Europe, South Africa, and Australia, gaining traction has been far [...]


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