subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

The recent wave of violent anti-Israel protests that have swept across universities throughout the globe represents a significant threat to academic freedom. At the University of Cape Town (UCT) this threat takes a different form but is equally concerning: a commitment to marginalising and silencing dissenting voices rather than pursuing knowledge.

The UCT senate recently adopted anti-Israel resolutions, now to be considered by the council on June 22. These resolutions run counter to the principles of academic freedom and should be opposed.

The first resolution, while purportedly dealing with “the destruction of scholarship and education in Gaza”, in effect proposes a far narrower definition of anti-Semitism, deliberately opening the door for abuse. By rejecting the globally recognised International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, the motion in effect condones many acts that are inherently anti-Semitic. This is dangerous territory, diluting the term to such an extent that it becomes almost meaningless.

Alarmingly, the UCT Palestinian Solidarity Forum publicly dedicated the adoption of the resolutions “to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah, the Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to Hamas, to the Ansarullah in Yemen”. Such support for oppressive regimes and hate groups seems to be an almost daily occurrence on campus. It is no wonder that Jewish students feel threatened at UCT, as many of these groups have explicitly called for the genocide of the Jewish people.

The second resolution calls for an academic boycott of collaboration with Israeli universities if they are in any way affiliated with the “broader Israeli military establishment”. This is in effect a call for a full academic boycott as all Israelis must serve in defence of their country, which is constantly under threat. The boycott will restrict the academic independence and rights of UCT staff and students, cutting the institution off from valuable Israeli knowledge and alienating it from prospective students, funders, and global knowledge networks.

Severe consequences

If the council adopts these resolutions on June 22 it will signal to the international academic community that UCT’s leadership is more interested in stifling debate for partisan reasons than creating a free space to further knowledge. EU countries and certain US states bar collaboration with entities that boycott Israel or support terrorist organisations, and there would be consequences if UCT were to move against Israel.

Severe financial consequences would also follow the adoption of the resolution. Many international and local funding institutions and donors will realise they are no longer contributing to an impartial university. In times of economic stress it would be truly self-destructive for UCT to choose an extreme political gesture over neutrality and financial security.

Ironically, the Israeli academic institutions that would be boycotted are fully diverse and inclusive, in line with Israel’s nature as a democratic state. In stark contrast, the authoritarian dictatorships that proboycott activists align themselves with systematically suppress academic freedom and enforce strict ideological conformity.   

So much is at stake for UCT — its academic freedom, reputation, financial security, and access to knowledge sharing. Considering the shocking general state of tertiary education in SA, it would be unconscionable for UCT to willingly adopt resolutions that will degrade the quality of education that students are entitled to.

The disruption of education through protests, often violent, is unacceptable. Locally, academics such as Jonathan Jansen have called for protests on campuses, lamenting the “cowardice” of students and staff in not copying American students’ actions. Higher education minister Blade Nzimande and international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor have likewise come out in support of academic boycotts in an attempt by the government to undermine university autonomy. Considering the combustible nature of SA’s campuses, this is reckless.

If UCT is going to state that “this knowledge is worthy because of political affiliation, and that knowledge is unworthy because of political affiliation”, it is bowing to the pressures of the day and shutting itself down as a free academic institution. This must not be allowed to happen. The council must reject these resolutions and protect the principles of academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge.

Rowan Polovin
SA Zionist Federation 

JOIN THE DISCUSSION: Send us an email with your comments to Letters of more than 300 words will be edited for length. Anonymous correspondence will not be published. Writers should include a daytime telephone number.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.