Protect Academic Freedom at the University of Cape Town

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We, the undersigned, including students, parents, alumni of the University of Cape Town, are aware of the ongoing campaign calling for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions at UCT. With this in mind, we call upon UCT’s management and leadership to stand against this campaign. We believe that the implementation of a wholesale academic boycott against Israel violates the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, guaranteed in Section 16 of the South African Constitution and which are fundamental to the undertaking of education and research.

Research, teaching, and scholarship flourish through robust exchange of ideas, across borders and among institutions in different parts of the world, including the Middle East. The true essence of a university is to foster dialogue and develop solutions to problems without regard to political, racial, and cultural differences. UCT has always shown these qualities, leading us to celebrate our association with UCT.

Additionally, we are concerned that despite there being a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, there is a dangerous convergence. Conclusive evidence shows that anti-Semitism is on the rise globally, and it is a new type of Jew-hatred that masks itself as opposition to Israel’s state policies and Zionism.

Student groups are well-known for their efforts to isolate the Jewish state’s universities, students and academics. And all too often student groups like the Palestine Solidarity Forum (PSF), at UCT, do not make the profound distinction between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and criticism of the policies of a particular Israeli government.

It is these blurred lines and misunderstandings that create a negative impact on campus for Jewish students, making them one of the most targeted minority groups at university.

As administrators, any decision to boycott Israeli universities fans the flames of anti-Jewish hostility on campus and it should recognise that the primary source of the harassment, intimidation, suppression of speech and ethnic discrimination of Jewish students originate from the pejorative activities of these student groups who do not make this differentiation.  

For years, UCT has enjoyed the reputation of being an inclusive environment for students from all cultural and racial backgrounds, and while there is no greater benefit to one’s intellectual and social development than ideological diversity, it is crucial for the concept of tolerance that we speak out against what we disagree, with limits. The concept of tolerance implies that we refrain from using violence, intimidation, threats and bans to silence our opponents.

We appeal to the university to draw on its rich history, as an institution that creates a community of intellectual individuals, where students were regarded as individuals in their own right, rather than a particular cultural or religious group. Any decision to boycott Israeli universities contributes to the popularity of radicalising identity politics and threatens to fracture campus life where we will find students inhabiting separate spaces and leading parallel lives. This is not the university we experienced, nor the one we envisage for the future.