Opinion

South Africa's Shameful Capitulation to anti-Israel Thuggery

As rector of Ben-Gurion University, I call out Stellenbosch University’s shameful, cowardly act - removing Israeli academics from their program. But who are the real victims? South Africans themselves

Student stage a protest against Zionism and Israel's policies during Israel Apartheid Week 2017 at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa on March 8, 2017.
Ihsaan Haffejee

The cowardly refusal of Stellenbosch University officials to stand up for academic freedom and intellectual honesty ahead of next week’s "Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma" conference is shameful, if not altogether unexpected.

The decision to remove Professors Shifra Sagy (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), Arie Nadler (Tel Aviv University) and Raya Morag (Hebrew University) is only the latest "victory" in South Africa for the Boycott Israel crowd, for whom intimidation and threats have long been the tools of choice.

But the main victims of demands by (so-called) pro-Palestinian activists to disinvite the Israeli researchers from the 5-8 December gathering are not Israeli academics. They are the people of South Africa itself, and the country’s values of intellectual honesty and academic freedom.

A building at South Africa's Stellenbosch University.
Raymond Ellis

There is little reason even to address the calumny of the comparison between modern Israel and apartheid South Africa. The comparison bears little resemblance to Israeli society, but does violence to the millions of black and colored South Africans who suffered under decades of pass laws, separate beaches, "Bantu education" requirements and a thousand more violations of civil rights and of basic human dignity on a daily basis.

Furthermore, as in other places, Stellenbosch’s boycott of Israeli researchers will have little effect on the groundbreaking research happening in Israel, in every field and at every university.

Despite the best efforts of a small cadre of activists, academic journals are hungry for research from Israel, and academics from virtually every country in the world – including South Africa, and including the Arab world – actively pursue collaborative projects with our scholars. None of that should come of a surprise: It is the natural outcome of a societal norm where the free exchange of ideas is sacrosanct.

Rather, the main victims here are South Africans themselves.

Twenty-five years after Nelson Mandela was elected president, and nearly 30 years after he was released from prison, South Africa remains mired in inequality.

A cursory glance at the country’s major cities confirms this: The leafy Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, located a short distance from the sprawling poverty in the Alexandra township, is still inhabited almost exclusively by whites. Same for Cape Town, where the mostly white residents of Hout Bay enjoy private swimming pools and luxury cars, adjacent to the Imizamo Yethu township where black residents are largely poor and lack basic sanitation and education infrastructure. 

According to a 2017 government report, white people - nine percent of the total population - still own 72 per cent of the country’s farmland. Nearly 30 percent of black youth are unemployed, as opposed to fewer than 10 percent of their white counterparts.

Socially, too, black and white South Africans have failed to capitalize on Mandela’s vision of a Rainbow Nation, offering opportunity, security and equality to all. To the contrary.

The ANC's rural affairs minister Gugile Nkwinti says openly that the ANC "unequivocally supports" the expropriation of white-owned land without compensation. The Yes4Youth website, a government-sponsored initiative founded by President Cyril Ramaphosa to work with businesses to improve youth employment, says openly that the service "is only available to Black, Indian or Coloured South Africans." 

How ironic, then, and how sad that the one of the subjects of this week’s boycott Israel protests was Professor Emerita Shifra Sagy, the chair of the Martin-Springer Center for Study of Conflict Management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and former chair of our Conflict Management and Resolution Program. Professor Sagy’s research would seem to be particularly relevant to the challenges facing South Africa today. 

Graffiti showing U.S. President Donald Trump with a footprint on his face and Arabic that reads, 'We resist for the sake of al-Quds (Jerusalem) and the right of return," Gaza City. May 20, 2018
Khalil Hamra/AP

"We drafted a program to bring together Palestinian and Jewish Israeli students for a project we called: 'Can we empathize with the narrative of our enemy?'" says Prof. Sagy. "The Palestinian students were pressured and threatened not to participate in the project in the name of not 'normalizing' ties with Israel, so we were left without their input.

"What we found, however, was astounding. We studied the Palestinian narrative, met with residents of the Deheisha refugee camp near Bethlehem to hear their stories, heard lectures from Palestinian academics.

"The data we collected was astounding: The interaction with the Palestinian narrative forced our students to consider viewpoints they hadn’t encountered before, which in turn forced them to sharpen and clarify their own beliefs. We found that the students were able to empathize with their enemies’ story, even while remaining proud Israeli citizens," Prof. Sagy said.  

Pro-Palestinian activists may well feel they have won this latest round of anti-Israeli thuggery. But their "victory" is a stolen one, wrested from South African students and society who would certainly have benefitted from drawing on the expertise of the Israel delegations personal experience and professional scholarship.

While the conference will probably go ahead, it will be much the poorer, morally and intellectually, for not having Israeli academics there.

Professor Chaim Hames is the rector of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel