The decision of the University of Johannesburg to actually implement a boycott of Ben Gurion University is indeed a major coup for the boycott campaign. It is also highly symbolic as it has been campaigned for and supported by such high profile anti-apartheid activists – and indeed heroes – such as Desmond Tutu and Faird Esack. It offers the boycott supporters and apparently firm link between Israel and apartheid.
However, this is analogy is in fact built on sand. In the debate, which was well dealt with by Robert Fine, Desmond Tutu thought it was correct to ask Jews to reflect on their own past of suffering. Whether or not Jews as Jews can make this reflection, what those of us with some knowledge of apartheid South Africa could ask the boycotters to consider the actual history of the University of Johannesburg. The core of the University of Johannesburg was the Rand Afrikaans University which was opened in 1968 as an academic project which was explicitly part of the apartheid project of the then ruling National Party. Its main buildings are in the shape of a laager – the defensive shape that wagons formed when under attack during the Great Trek. Its intellectual project was to counter the “liberalism” of the University of Witwatersrand which is also in Johannesburg and to propagate apartheid in the academy across all subjects.
I think we need to ask those who support this boycott whether they really think that Ben Gurion University shares the antecedents of the University of Johannesburg. It is evident that Ben Gurion University as an institution has simply not acted as a project to support to the colonial occupation of the Palestinian Territories – and its academics have included ironically some of the Israelis most associated with calls for the boycott, such as Neve Gordon – and his excellent book “Israel’s Occupation” (2008) speaks for itself.
Ben Gurion University is not in the same mould of the Rand Afrikaans University. The boycotters should know their own South African history better.