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Bond, Patrick & Desai, Muhammed (2012) Can ‘closing the doors of learning’ open the doors of freedom?. Eye on Civil Society : -.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal is having its ups and downs, but one near-disaster yesterday deserves more reflection because it points us in a positive direction: away from allying with the Israeli state.

At immediate stake was an expert input about Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, the topic of current controversy since a Tel Aviv-based group (Gush Shalom) opposed to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine has asked that last Saturday’s ‘Jerusalem Day’ in future be removed from Israel’s calendar of holidays. As a celebration of the 1967 War and Occupation of Palestine, it involves a provocative march to the Wall through the Muslim Quarter of East Jerusalem.

Says political scientist Peter Beinart, author of the influential new book, The Crisis of Zionism, “I am disturbed that Yom Yerushalayim has become a nationalistic holiday, observed most publicly by the religious right. Too often, Yom Yerushalayim celebrations turn violent… most celebrations glorify the violent abuse of power by cruel extremists.”

Israeli official Yaa’kov Finkelstein had informed UKZN’s Social Sciences Dean Nwabufo Okeke-Uzodike that he “would like to give a lecture to staff and students on the Western Wall in Jerusalem” yesterday at UKZN’s Howard College, but with less than 24 hours to go, UKZN Deputy Vice Chancellor Joseph Ayee emailed staff: “I have re-considered the sensitivities that the visit of the Israeli Deputy Ambassador has generated. Given the negative publicity that the visit will give UKZN, I hereby cancel the visit and the lecture.”

That the talk would “be held under a cloud with likely reputational damage for the institution is not in the interests of all of us,” observed Ayee. This resulted from a flurry of letters by senior academics including Lubna Nadvi, Rozeena Maart and Jerry Coovadia, as well as a vibrant protest planned by rap artist Iain Ewok Robinson, who generated similar opposition to Finkelstein’s co-sponsorship of the Hilton Arts Festival last year.

Said Robinson, “Hosting the ambassador under the auspices of creating some kind of neutral space for dialogue is another blatant legitimization of Israel’s policies of oppression.”

The movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel got a boost in 2010 when South African Artists Against Apartheid declared, “Collaborating with institutions linked to the state of Israel cannot be regarded as a neutral act in the name of cultural exchange.”

In this context, reputational damage would have surely followed. Upon hearing of Finkelstein’s talk, Ramallah-based BDS strategist Omar Barghouti exclaimed, “Why would they invite an Israeli diplomat to UKZN at a time when even the SA government is advising its own ministers not to visit Israel, unless for absolute necessity? This is what complicity looks like!”

Barghouti continued, “Imagine in the 1980s if a Cuban or Palestinian university had invited a South African official to give a lecture? Wouldn’t the ANC and the great majority of South Africans have felt betrayed by their best friends in the world? Well, this is how Palestinians feel now every time a South African institution is complicit with Israel.”

Universities should be at the forefront of this movement because by making Israeli officials unwelcome, these opportunities actually open wide the door for learning political ethics.

Three years the same controversy arose at Wits University, and its officials mandated a leading lawyer, Geoff Budlender, to investigate. As he concluded in favour of the BDS activists, Wits “could legitimately decide to make its facilities available to outside organisations only for certain purposes, and not to make them available for other purposes... [if] a speaker or activity might be so offensive.”

Likewise, the University of Johannesburg was pressured by 450 leading South African academics – including nine vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors – to terminate its institutional relationship with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU) last year.

Then, according to Nina Butler of the Rhodes University Palestinian Solidarity Forum, writing in Mail&Guardian Thoughtleader last week, another local university “was approached by BGU with a large amount of funding for water research, only to be told explicitly that their association and money was not desirable.”

At BGU itself, yesterday was also an important moment for academic boycotting when a conference on African Entrepreneurs was the subject of criticism, given the university’s ongoing collaboration with the illegal occupation of Palestine. Zimbabwean historian Musiwaro Ndakaripa withdrew as a result.

Last week, Pretoria’s Ambassador in Tel Aviv was summoned by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a formal reprimand because the SA Department of Trade and Industry followed European Union custom by ruling against ‘Made in Israel’ marketing of Ahava cosmetics (sold regularly by company representatives in Musgrave Mall). The products originate from the illegal West Bank Occupation at Mitzpe Shalem near the Dead Sea.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry complained that this represents “negatively tagging a state through a special marking, according to national-political criteria. Accordingly, this is a racist measure.”

In reply: was it racist – or effective – to oppose SA apartheid by boycotting the state institutions and the companies which made it tick?

Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and Desai coordinates BDS activities in SA.

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