Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Photo by Eliyahu Hershkowitz
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JOHANNESBURG - A leading South African university is severing ties with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev after hundreds of South African professors called for an academic boycott.

Vice Chancellor Adam Habib said Thursday that the University of Johannesburg is ending a 25-year relationship on April 1. He said professors can continue to work individually with Ben-Gurion, should they decide to do so and should Ben-Gurion agree to it.

More than 400 South Africans signed a petition calling for the boycott, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Congress of South African Trade Unions called it a landmark moment in the campaign to boycott Israel.

Habib said the university's senate committee discussed the issue for two hours on Wednesday then had a secret vote. Sixty percent voted to sever ties, outvoting the remainder who wanted relations with both Israeli and Palestinian universities.

"This is not a boycott of Ben-Gurion," said UJ's executive director for advancement, Kerry Swift. "The formal relationship between the institutions is in a sense an obstacle, and the feeling is that we would encourage relationships on an individual basis."

Relations with Ben-Gurion University began when UJ was the whites-only Rand Afrikaans University during the apartheid era. South Africa's post-apartheid government has been a sharp critic of Israel's policies regarding the Palestinians.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies criticized the decision, saying that it would be detrimental to "constructive intellectual engagement in South Africa."

"The UJ senate's decision to allow the formal relationship between UJ and BGU to lapse is playing to narrow-minded political prejudice and is a severe setback for constructive intellectual engagement in South Africa,” SAJBD national chairperson Zev Krengel said in a statement published in the South African press.

Ben-Gurion and Johannesburg universities have been working together on cleaning algae from South African drinking water, Krengel was quoted as saying.

He said the decision showed that, "rather than availing itself of a scientific co-operative project in the water purification field that has enormous potential benefits for South Africa, UJ has chosen instead to further the agenda of a group of anti-Israel agitators." 

Alana Baranov of SAJBD said South Africans "should be serving to provide a tolerant and respectful place where complex problems can be resolved and we can share resources."

"Academic boycotts are anti-freedom of speech and anti-academic," she said.

Baranov said the joint research had been done to improve the lives of average South Africans.

Those fighting to end cooperation have argued that Ben-Gurion has ties to the Israel Defense Force and is complicit in the military's treatment of Palestinians.

"Israeli universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice," Tutu wrote in a recent essay. "While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation."