David Newman on the ultimatum set by the University of Johannesburg for Ben Gurion University

This piece, by David Newman, is from the Jerusalem Post.  David Newman is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University in Israel

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of writing about the successful BIRAX scientific cooperation between Israeli and UK universities. The context was not only the promotion of intellectual cooperation, but also the response to those who would boycott scientific ties because of the political situation as it relates to Israel, the West Bank and the status of the Palestinians.

This week, we have another story of scientific cooperation threatened with boycott. The University of Johannesburg in South Africa threatened to cancel a scientific cooperation program with Ben-Gurion University – an agreement which was signed only one year ago, and which focuses on areas of cooperation in biotechnology and water purification, to the benefit of all.

At last week’s meeting of the university senate in Johannesburg, a sort of compromise agreement was reached. An immediate boycott proposal was not passed, but the university made further cooperation and the renewal of the agreement dependent on the expansion of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian universities.

The past 15 years have witnessed a great deal of scientific cooperation in diverse areas. I could spend the rest of this column outlining some of the joint projects which take place between Ben-Gurion faculty and both their Palestinian and Jordanian counterparts – be it in medicine, environmental protection and even overtly political issues such as human rights. But in doing so, I would be in danger of harming many of these programs.

In most cases, it is the Palestinian side which prefers to keep the project out of sight of the media. Important groups within Palestinian civil society, such as trade unions and academics, are highly critical of those who want to cooperate on a basis of equality when, in reality, there is no equality – political or economic. They are uncomfortable with the thought that through cooperation they are, de facto, legitimizing the occupation. Palestinian academics who work with Israelis find the political pressure to bow to the anti-intellectual logic of the boycott campaign difficult to deal with.

By declaring a long list of cooperative projects, I also fall into the trap of trying to prove myself (or the institution I represent) a “good Jew,” one that can be legitimized for no other reason than the fact that I work and sympathize with the “other” side, am opposed to occupation and promote the universality of human rights and independence for all.

As much as I hold these positions, they are not, for me, a litmus test through which Israeli universities should, or should not, be made legitimate. Joint research is carried out for the intrinsic reason of producing knowledge, not so the researchers can be seen to be ideologically correct.

BOYCOTTS do nothing to promote the interests of peace, human rights or – in the case of Israel – the end of occupation. The “good Jew” response by BGU would accept the logic of the academic boycott, but would argue for an exception for BGU on the basis that it passed the political test – one which is only applied to Israel. In reality, last week’s decision has given the pro-boycotters a sixmonth period to win additional supporters, legitimizing the idea that academic boycotts are justifiable.

And what about the countless attacks on Ben-Gurion University faculty from right-wing groups such as Im Tirtzu and IsraCampus, accusing us of dealing too much with Palestine- and occupation-related issues? These groups would like nothing better than to prevent Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

The University of Johannesburg is, unwittingly, strengthening the hand of these ultranationalist groups and, ironically, making it even more difficult for cross-border dialogue and cooperation to take place. The boycott campaign strengthens the rejectionists on both sides, and weakens those building practical or political foundations for peace.

But even when there is a willingness to participate in joint ventures, it is not easy. Israeli academics enjoy working conditions which can only be dreamed of by their Palestinian colleagues. Meetings are never easy to arrange – Israelis are forbidden to enter Area “A” where most of the Palestinian universities are, and many are fearful of venturing into these areas even if they were allowed.

Palestinians coming to meetings in Israeli institutions have to apply for transit permits weeks in advance, and are often refused or left waiting until the last moment, when it is too late to make complex travel arrangements.

Those of us who believe it is important to advance scientific cooperation and build grassroots trust between the two scholarly communities should not fool ourselves into thinking that the conditions faced by the two groups are equal or symmetrical. They are not.

Israeli academics are all too often silent on the issue of access to higher education for Palestinian students. As Israeli academics who believe in cooperation, we should be the first to demand freedom of access for all Palestinian faculty and students to their own institutions and to institutions elsewhere in the world – with no more restrictions than those faced by us.

As in the case of BIRAX and the British universities, our international colleagues should be doing everything possible to expand the conditions under which Israeli- Palestinian cooperation can take place.

I invite my colleague Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, to make good on his statement of last week, when he said: “We believe in reconciliation…We’d like to bring BGU and Palestinian universities together to produce a collective engagement that benefits everyone.”

I can show him examples of where universities around the world are hosting groups of Israeli and Palestinian scholars who find it difficult to meet under local conditions.

Take, for example, the Olive Tree program at City University in London, where Israeli and Palestinian students receive scholarships to spend three years studying for undergraduate degrees and understanding each other. Or the Daniel Turnberg Travel Fellowship Fund, which supports young medical researchers from Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt who travel to the UK and spend a month in a university or hospital, where they meet experts in their field and plan future research collaborations.

Or next month’s human rights workshop organized by the Crucible Center at the University of Roehampton, where Israeli and Palestinian scholars will discuss issues of common interest, beyond the boundaries of the conflict which prevents them from doing this at home.

Habib is welcome to choose the topic, the cooperating institutions and the relevant scholars. This would be a truly positive contribution by the University of Johannesburg to promoting the values it touted last week. And considering its own country, which was transformed into a new and equal society during the past two decades, who better to lead the world’s academic community in trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian scholars together?

This piece, by David Newman, is from the Jerusalem Post.  David Newman is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University in Israel

19 Responses to “David Newman on the ultimatum set by the University of Johannesburg for Ben Gurion University”

  1. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    The voice of reason is quiet, but it is persistent

  2. Abtalyon Says:

    As the current cooperation between Johannesburg University and BGU concerns water purification, BGU scientists might be able to demonstrate the value of the link by perhaps offering a solution to the acid water crisis which is threatening the city of Johannesburg?

  3. Jonathan Romer Says:

    Newman had me in absolute agreement through the entire first half of this piece, which may be more than I can say for anything else of his I have read before. He starts to lose me when he gets to “right-wing groups … accusing us of dealing too much with Palestine- and occupation-related issues”, which is simply a mealy-mouthed, self-serving evasion. I haven’t heard that complaint from anyone — but I’ve heard plenty of complaints (including my own) about some at BGU indulging themselves in anti-Zionism. Neve Gordon’s boycott advocacy in the LA Times a year ago wasn’t “dealing too much with Palestine- and occupation-related issues”. It was a direct invitation to non-Israelis to sabotage his colleagues’ work by boycotting them, and to subscribe to the lie of “apartheid Israel”. And it was anti-democratic, in that it ignored the many available Israeli avenues of dissent, looking instead for help from Israel’s foreign detractors.

    Even though Newman and I would no doubt agree that BGU may not interfere with Gordon’s academic freedom, if Newman can’t even acknowledge Gordon’s published opinions for what they are, as a critical thinker and as an educator, he’s a failure.

    • Blacklisted Dictator Says:

      Newman writes:
      I invite my colleague Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, to make good on his statement of last week, when he said: “We believe in reconciliation…We’d like to bring BGU and Palestinian universities together to produce a collective engagement that benefits everyone.”

      The question that has to be addressed is… what does Adam Habib really believe in? What is he wider political agenda?
      I would argue that his role is to ensure that UJ leads the international boycott of Israel. And it is inevitable that he will succeed in ensuring that this happens sooner or later.

      I have to conclude that Newman does not really understand the depth and complexity of the anti-zionist movement in SA.
      The only relevant question is will the other Profs at UJ stop Habib from securing his goal?My feeling is that Habib will inevitably outplay them.

    • Uri Golomb Says:

      Jonathan: Just because you haven’t heard about the right-wing complaints that Newman alludes to, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. The campaign by Im Tirtzu against a supposedly anti-Zionist bias at BGU — a campaign which lumps together supporters and opponents of BDS — has been in the headlines in Israel for months. See, as just one example:

    • Jonathan Romer Says:


      I accept completely that there’s a lot I don’t know about the current state of Israeli discourse and politics. Furthermore, this is a good opportunity to acknowledge that I went too far in attacking David Newman and to retract my final comment about him. I’m not in a position to judge him as a teacher, and this one small phrase of his is not enough for me to dismiss him as “a failure as a critical thinker”.

      Nevertheless, the Ha’aretz article you link to doesn’t do the work you need it to. It doesn’t support Newman’s assertion of “right-wing groups … accusing us of dealing too much with Palestine- and occupation-related issues”. That’s not the accusation that Im Tirtzu leveled against BGU. Agree or disagree with them and the response they propose, their charge is stated in the first sentence of the article and it’s the same one that I mentioned: an “anti-Zionist tilt”.

      I was in fact aware of Im Tirtzu’s campaign and it left a bad taste in my mouth, but I’m not wholly unsympathetic either. I don’t need I’m Tirtzu to tell me what to do with my contributions. Well before their letter, I had already withheld the (unfortunately small) amount I usually send BGU and redirected it to the Weizmann Institute. I sent BGU a letter instead, saying that whilst I would neither expect nor want them to discipline Neve Gordon, I would be quite happy for them to take my missing pittance from his department’s budget, pointing out to him that academic stupidity has real world consequences.

  4. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    If UJ boycotts BGU, who will be the loser? SA or Israel?


    King Abdullah was dismissive:

    ” I cannot think of a major company that doesn’t do business with Israel. If all these companies are off limits, then we are in deep trouble,” King Abdullah told the Petra news agency on Tuesday.

    “For example, Intel, whose chips power 80 per cent of computers around the world, has billions of dollars of investments in Israel. Its closest competitor, AMD, also has large investments in Israel. Does that mean we should throw our computers away? This is nonsense.

    “If we follow this line of thought, then we will be doing the best service to Israel. All it has to do is use the best technology and best talent in the world and automatically it would be off-limits to us,” he said.

  5. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Interesting article from the US-based Israel21c website:

    Inter alia, it says “Dr Moshe Herzberg from Ben Gurion University…and Prof. Mohammed Saleem Ali-Shtayeh, from the Biodiversity and Environmental Research Center…in Nablus…have been awarded a Mid EastRegional Cooperation…USAID $650,000 grant for a joint water purification project that will address clean water issues and increase the clean water supply in the region as a whole.”

    Now, remind me, Adam Habib, what was it you wanted from BGU, apart from abject surrender? Oh yes, co-operation with Palestinian and other universities in the region. I’m sure UJ and Habib will find some way of asserting that this co-operation does not and cannot fir in with the criteria demanded.

    One trusts that BGU will ram their boycott back down their throats. “What, SA needs this technology? So go and develop it for yourselves. But don’t try and use our technology and findings. We’ve patented them.”

    • Jonathan Romer Says:

      “Israel Denies Clean Water Technology to Thirsty Africans. World Outraged. Tutu: ‘Zionism is Racism'” News of the Guardian

    • Thomas Venner Says:

      I’d love to see how the boycotters at UJ would react if BGU just decided to cut ties with UJ entirely and put all the resources they were using on their collaboration with them into similar collaborations with Palestinian universities. It would probably be a better deal all round.

      Also, talking of Israeli-Palestinian (and, in this case, Jordanian) co-operation, take a look at the Friends of the Earth network in the area:


      As if TULIP wasn’t making the boycotters freak out enough as it is.

  6. Blacklisted Dictator Says:


    South African Academics Supporting the PACBI Call for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions.

    Interesting to note who signed the petition in 2005:
    Prof. Adam Habib, Executive Director.

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Just as interesting is the ownership of the site and when it was last updated: This site is owned and maintained by Sue Blackwell.
      It was last updated on 21st December 2005.

      Who’d a thunk it? So that’s what’s happened to her.

      I noticed one medic and no other “hard” scientists on the list so kindly collected by the delightful Sue. Which is just the prediction offered by Bill on the other comments thread related to this topic, a bit further down/a bit ago.

        • Brian Goldfarb Says:

          BD, without wishing to sound (and certainly not be) patronising, I’ve followed the unlovely boycott career of Sue Blackwell through the pages of Engage from the beginning. You might say that I’m one of the “founding commenters” on this site: I’ve been doing it from the start of the site.

          Thus, on the comments thread attached to the article you’ve linked to, you’ll find 2 comments from me, one 14 down, at 29/6/07, 6.25 pm, and a further one at 30/6/07, 12.05 pm. I also had a go at Ms Blackwell’s husband, when he threatened to sue on her behalf some time later.

          My point was an attempted irony, along the lines of “we’ve missed responding to your comments, Ms Blackwell, since you losat your position on the UCU National Executive”.

  7. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    It should also be noted that Prof Salim Vally and Prof Steven Friedman are also at UJ. The are both leading members of the academic boycott campaign. So it is not coincidental that the issue has arisen at UJ.

  8. Blacklisted Dictator Says:

    I wonder whether any action in law can be taken to force Prof Adam Habib to recuse himself with regard to the possible boycott of Ben Gurion University. I think it is certainly worth considering.

    It is quite clear that Prof Habib has an academic boycott axe to grind.

  9. Proposals to boycott Israeli Universities: a response by Robert Fine, following Desmond Tutu, Neve Gordon, Uri Avnery, David Hirsh and Ran Greenstein « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism Says:

    […] Click here for the response of David Newman, who is Dean of Social Science at BGU.   This proposal in South Africa sparked renewed debate on the Engage website. […]

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