University of Cape Town, UC Berkeley Hailed for ‘Ignoring’ BDS Campaign to Cancel Israeli Academics at Conference

The main plaza at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Photo: Reuters/Mike Hutchings.

A student group working with the Boycott, Sanctions, Divestment–South African Coalition (SABDS) failed to cancel presentations by two Israeli professors at an academic conference co-hosted by the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Cape Town (UCT), drawing praise from South Africa’s main pro-Israel organization.

Calling itself the Palestine Solidarity Forum (UCT PSF), the group endorsed a SABDS petition demanding that the organizers of a virtual conference require Yofi Tirosh, of Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, and Postdoctoral Fellow Nausica Palazzo of Hebrew University to “issue statements distancing themselves” from the state of Israel or “withdraw the participation of Israeli academics.”

The conference of legal scholars, “Inequality in a Time of Global Crisis,” was held on July 14-16, and organized by the Berkeley Center on Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the PSF said it also sent UCT and the Berkeley Center an ultimatum calling for the professors to “clarify … their position on Palestine,” or otherwise for the conference to rescind the scholars’ invitations to the conference and to invite Palestinian academics.

In a response seen by The Algemeiner, the Berkeley Center told the group and conference presenters that, “the Dean at Berkeley Law and the Dean of Law at the University of Cape Town are in agreement that we will not exclude a speaker or participant from the conference based on their nationality or affiliation with a university, nor because of the policies of their government.”

“We remain firm on this position, and do not intend to single out for prejudicial treatment, or to call on any of our participants to request that they distance themselves from the actions of their government,” the Center said.

David Oppenheimer, director of the Berkeley Center, told The Algemeiner Friday, “I think we took the right position.”

The stance was cheered by Chaya Singer, Executive Director of the South African Zionist Federation Cape Council, who argued that sustaining partnerships between Israeli and South African universities promotes peace.

“The role of such institutions is actually to engage with the real issues at hand of which there are many to solve, promote dialogue and peace, find solutions to water, energy and food security and the development of education,” she told The Algemeiner. “In all of these spheres co-operation between Israel and South Africa has considerable potential.”

The success of any academic institution is fundamentally rooted in its ability to foster open dialogue and create an environment where discourse can be developed regardless of political affiliation, race or cultural differences,” she said. 

The PSF called the response by the Berkeley Center and a previous UCT statement affirming the university’s commitment to academic freedom “hypocritical,” accusing both of denying Palestinians a “platform to share their experiences of the unjust and discriminatory laws that they are subjected to by the state of Israel.”

The SABDS petition, titled, “Stop Israel’s violation of International & Humanitarian Law at UCT Law Faculty Conference” and posted on Change.org, has amassed 2,439 signatories.

Past efforts to boycott ties to Israeli academics at the University of Cape Town have been strongly opposed. In November 2019, 68 percent of the 363 members of the UCT Senate voted down a resolution proposing that the school “not enter any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

Two years prior, a petition calling on the school to “stand against” a boycott of Israel drew over 69,00 signatures, arguing that boycotts violate principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The Berkeley Center’s position also accorded with the University of California’s past opposition to the BDS movement. In 2008, the Chancellors of the University of California said that an Israel boycott “poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty, as well as the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on our campuses, including debate and discourse regarding conflicts in the Middle East.”

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Author: Dion J. Pierre


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