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.