The Faculty Senate at the University of Johannesburg will vote this week on whether to end an academic relationship between the South African university and one in Israel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
The vote has set off an intense debate among South African academics and intellectuals, with Archbishop Desmund Tutu last week urging the faculty at Johannesburg to cut their ties to Ben-Gurion. "Israeli universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation," Tutu wrote in Times Live. 
For Israeli academics and many others who oppose academic boycotts, a vote to sever ties to Ben-Gurion could mark a major defeat. Not only would there be a concrete example of institutional support for an academic boycott, but there would be added symbolism to the move coming from South Africa. Boycott backers have repeatedly compared Israel's treatment of Palestinians to the apartheid regime in South Africa's treatment of its black majority -- a comparison that has been fiercely opposed by Israel's supporters (and by some critics of Israel as well).
"Where in the experience of higher education is the cutting off of ties to an educational institution appropriate?" asked Ilan Troen an emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion who helped promote its ties in South Africa and who is now director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, at Brandeis University. "To those who stand for free speech and academic freedom, to ostracize a university community is an absurdity."
Troen added that the research projects between the universities take advantage of Ben-Gurion's strengths in biology and water management in arid zones (the Negev of the university's name is a desert) to help African farmers who live and work in arid regions. "This research they are trying to cut off helps real people," he said. "Why in the name of heaven would you attack research that helps your own people?"
The debate in Johannesburg is over the university's agreement for academic exchanges and joint research projects with Ben-Gurion on topics that don't pertain directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- biotechnology and water purification. When the agreement was announced last year, some faculty members at Johannesburg protested immediately and university leaders appointed a special committee, which will report to the Senate this week, at which point a vote is expected.
Faculty leaders say that they believe that the university will follow the advice of the vote -- although university administrators have not confirmed that. (History is very much at play here. Some of the collaborative research extends projects that started before the fall of apartheid with Rand Afrikaans University, which became part of the University of Johannesburg. Critics of the research say it should be viewed as an extension of apartheid-era research, while defenders of the project say that it was work being done, even before the fall of apartheid, to help black farmers, and should be judged on its scientific merit and social contributions.)
A petition  backing the call to end ties to Ben-Gurion rejects the idea that research collaboration with an Israeli university can be seen as "purely scientific co-operation," and says that "as academics we acknowledge that all of our scholarly work takes place within larger social contexts -- particularly in institutions committed to social transformation."
Supporters of cutting ties to Ben-Gurion have released the names of 200 prominent South African academics (from many universities) backing such a move and have offered several reasons for their stance. Some of the arguments relate to Israel's treatment of Palestinian students. "The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has had disastrous effects on access to education for Palestinians. Palestinian students face immobilization, poverty, gendered violence, harassment and humiliation as a result of Israeli policy," says a webpage produced by faculty leaders. Further, it notes that Palestinians are not represented in their share of the Israeli population either among students or faculty members at Israeli universities.
Other criticisms relate to policies of Ben-Gurion University, which is accused of "links to the Israeli military" because it has scholarships for students who served in combat units and has systems in place to provide special support to students who are called up for reserve duty. (Such measures aren't that different from what other Israeli universities do, given that in a country with compulsory military service and reserve duty, students with military obligations are fairly common.)
Further, those calling for Johannesburg to cut ties to Ben-Gurion charge the Israeli university with "criminalizing dissent" in not sufficiently backing academics such as Neve Gordon,  an outspoken critic of Israel's policies toward Palestinians. The critics charge that Ben-Gurion is clearly an agent of the Israeli government because Rivka Carmi, the president, has described the university as a "proudly Zionist institution."
Gordon, a political scientist, has been the subject of much debate in Israel and the United States because of his statements about Israeli policy. Many academics have criticized Carmi and others for their unwillingness to defend Gordon's academic freedom in a forceful way,  but many right-wingers in Israel have criticized Carmi for not firing Gordon. In fact, some of Carmi's statements about the university being Zionist have come in response to critics who have accused the political science department of being disloyal to Israel.
Troen, who stressed that he was speaking as an individual scholar and not as a spokesman for Ben-Gurion, said that critics of Israel have distorted the university's record. He said that its ties to South Africa are strong, noting that the university awarded an honorary doctorate to Nelson Mandela in 1997. And he said that to characterize Ben-Gurion as an institution that is part of an apartheid culture is "a mendacious allegation," noting that half of the children born in the university hospital are Bedouins, and that the university has long educated Arab students and employed Arab faculty members.
He noted that for all of the criticism of the university for not defending Gordon, the controversial political scientist never lost his position, and he is part of a university with just about every imaginable position on the Middle East. "I have taught in Israel, Britain and the United States -- and Israeli universities are among the freest in the world," he said. "The range of opinion is extraordinary. I have colleagues [at Ben-Gurion] who wish the State of Israel would disintegrate and I have colleagues who support the settlements."
To accuse the university of being an arm of the military in Israel, he said, is to apply a standard that the University of Johannesburg faculty does not apply anywhere else. "It's like attacking MIT for getting money from the same government that is fighting a war in Afghanistan," he said. He would never assume that all MIT faculty members support that war, or that all of MIT's research funds are related to that war, but Johannesburg faculty are applying such a standard to Ben-Gurion, he said.
Troen said that he takes the possibility of a vote against continuing ties with Ben-Gurion seriously. Much of the movement to boycott Israel's universities has come from British faculty unions, who have faced legal challenges to their activities  and whose efforts have not been backed by the universities as institutions. If Johannesburg ends ties to Ben-Gurion, Troen said, "it would be extraordinary. It would be attacking a university as part of a program for the delegitimization of the Jewish state."
The university issued this statement about the vote at Johannesburg: "Those opposed to this collaboration accuse BGU of abusing academic freedom, abusing human rights and being an accomplice to an apartheid government system. All these accusations are totally false. Ben Gurion University has been a leader in its humanitarian activities, supporting minority groups within Israel such as the Bedouin community of the Negev. Our adherence to freedom of speech has been demonstrated in the fact that no steps were taken against a professor who openly called for a boycott of the state of Israel and its educational and cultural institutions. BGU constantly works to help the population in third world countries in field such as medical treatment, agriculture in arid zones, water treatment and management and many other fields. It is ironic that Ben Gurion University is asked to defend itself against such absurd accusations which are motivated by extreme anti Israel attitudes."