John Strawson on the University of Johannesburg’s boycott decision

John Strawson

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.

John Strawson, author of Partitioning Palestine, Reader in Law, UEL

More from John Strawson:
Zionism and Apartheid
The boycott campaign is about fuelling hatred of Israel
Why I am against the boycott
on sweeping victories and crushing defeats
reply to ‘Jews for Justice’ on the Lebanon war– and ensuing debate

4 Responses to “John Strawson on the University of Johannesburg’s boycott decision”

  1. James Mendelsohn Says:

    “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.'”

    BGU is also the base of Benny Morris, who at one time was among the most prominent of the “New Historians” whose work on the events of 1948 is so often used by Israel’s detractors, including those within the BSD movement. So will they now boycott a historian whose output they have previously used for their own anti-Israel purposes?

  2. Absolute Observer Says:

    James and John both assume that the decision to boycott was taken on rational grounds; i.e. that those seeking to exclude Jews would indeed carefully balance the pros and cons and make the decision accordingly.

    It should not be forgotten that a leading anti-zionist spokesperson was held by the SAHRC to have engaged in antisemitic hate speech and that “anti-Israel demonstrations” were held in specifically Jewish neighbourhoods in J’burg and outside SA Jewish Community buildings.

    That – and not rational decision-making – is the true context of UJ’s “decision”.

  3. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    What a shame that the Uni of Johannesburg doesn’t want South Africa to share BGU’s breakthrough technology on water conservation and the better use of scarce water resources, unlike the Palestine authority and Jordan. Because a boycott means refusing to use it, doesn’t it.

    Unless, of course, they are going to be as hypocritical as all other would-be boycotters of Israel.

  4. Cynthia and Jello « Greens Engage Says:

    […] current government has lost some of the ground it gained towards equality. But it has never been an apartheid state, and if Palestinian leaders stop hedging and accepted a two state solution rather than cagily […]


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