Severing of Ties

Following closely watched debate, a South African university will halt work with an Israeli university with which it has cooperated for years.
March 24, 2011

The University of Johannesburg, following a vote of its Senate on Wednesday, will end joint work with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The debate at Johannesburg has been closely watched by those advocates of Palestinian rights who see the isolation of Israeli higher education as a way to advance their cause, and by opponents of academic boycotts (who have a range of views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) who fear the potential for the move to be followed by others. Indeed many leading South African academics at other universities backed the movement at Johannesburg -- although it is also the case that many professors in South Africa have opposed the boycott. Many critics of Israel compare its policies to those of apartheid-era South Africa (a comparison Israel rejects), and that has added to the significance of the vote at Johannesburg.

In the end, the Senate at Johannesburg voted on two options: ending ties to Ben-Gurion University or letting them continue but also developing ties to Palestinian universities. The vote (which the administration had said it would respect) was 72 to end ties to Ben-Gurion and 45 to keep them but add ties to Palestinian universities. A statement issued by the university noted that the end of official ties between the two universities does not rule out ties between individual faculty members at the two institutions.

The ties between the two universities include academic exchanges and joint research projects on topics that don't pertain directly to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- biotechnology and water purification.

Supporters of the boycott said after the vote that it was "a landmark victory," and they cited several reasons for cutting ties to Ben-Gurion. The petition that was used to gather support for the boycott vote offers this rationale: "The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has had disastrous effects on access to education for Palestinians. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception, by maintaining links to both the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the arms industry BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation."

Officials of Ben-Gurion campaigned against the boycott vote, arguing that universities should not be held responsible for the political decisions of their countries, and that academics at the university have a range of views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Ben-Gurion is home to some of the more prominent Israeli academic critics of the Israeli government, but also has been criticized for not doing enough to protect their academic freedom.)

Many academic opponents of the boycott have said that universities should not subject ties to other institutions to tests based on political issues. David Bilchitz, a law professor at Johannesburg who is director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law, published an op-ed just prior to the vote saying that the university was applying standards to an Israeli university that it does not apply to those from other countries.

He said that the only reason academics should rule out cooperation is if the research in question involves "the violation of fundamental rights." And Bilchitz added that "[i]t is difficult to see how the UJ-BGU research into the purification of water and development of biofuels can contribute to the human rights of Palestinians being abrogated."

Ben-Gurion University responded Thursday morning, stating that it "regrets the decision of the University of Johannesburg to terminate its collaborative research agreement and reaffirms its commitment to advancing the values of academic freedom, regional cooperation and the advancement of social justice through education and research."

The statement added: "Peace will only happen when there is a dialogue between all of the people of the region. Canceling this agreement which was designed to solve real problems of water contamination in a reservoir near Johannesburg will only hurt the residents of South Africa."


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