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Boycotting Israel — UCT’s decision should balance moral outrage with long-term costs to the university

Boycotting Israel — UCT’s decision should balance moral outrage with long-term costs to the university
The University of Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

On Monday, the University of Cape Town’s Senate will vote on boycotting Israel. One can only hope that once away from accusations of moral failure from colleagues, and abusive chanting by protesters, members of Senate will remember what it is that unites them.

The University of Cape Town’s Senate convened on 23 February for a regular meeting, where the agenda included three separate motions calling for one or more of a range of responses to the ongoing crisis in Gaza. None of the three motions could be voted on that day following a loss of quorum before any of the motions could be tabled.

The meeting was reconvened on 8 March, where – in another three-hour sitting – one of the three motions was eventually debated. The meeting ended after it was decided that voting would be secret, online, and open for voting on Monday, 11 March. I return to discussing the 8 March meeting below, after concluding a brief overview of relevant history.

This was not the first time that motions to condemn or boycott Israel had been served before Senate. In 2019, Senate did in fact pass a limited boycott motion, which was later that year rescinded by Senate, after Council had declined to support the motion, choosing instead to refer it back to Senate while simultaneously engaging in a review of the possible consequences of such a boycott for the university.

Senate has not seen the results of that review, and it was never presented to a plenary meeting of Council, not least because by the time that review had been completed, Senate had rescinded its previous decision, rendering (in the Council executive’s mind, at least) the matter moot. Members of Council and the university executive have, however, read it, as well as accompanying legal opinion. The details of these documents are, however, superfluous to justifying the following two points.

First, no well-meaning interlocutor on these issues can deny that the consequences of something like a boycott of Israeli universities (or any broader boycott) would likely be dramatic, and complex enough in their range and magnitude of effect, that – in the absence of careful consideration of the accumulated evidence – it would have to be absolutely clear that the moral imperative of enacting an academic boycott outweighs the possible negative consequences of doing so.

This is no doubt the view held by those who proposed and supported an academic boycott of Israel, even as some protesters resorted to clear emotional blackmail (“how many kids did you kill today?” was one chant at a previous meeting), and even as some staff showed the same disrespect towards both the vice-chancellor interim as well as other members of Senate, albeit in versions of argument rather than simple abuse.

One might hope that a room filled mostly with professors would anticipate that a small university cannot affect a war in another country, and that… it would be foolhardy to embrace the possibility of such a boycott, until the consequences of doing so were known

This past Friday (8 March) included more disrespect over discourse, and I imagine that people on both sides of the debate (simply, whether UCT should enact a boycott versus that it should not – I would hope that every member of Senate is united in horror at the actual events in the Middle East). This time, I left the meeting to chants of “how many kids must die before you vote” from protesters outside, while proponents of the motion inside the room had chosen to instead make arguments for either our moral obligation to boycott, or our moral failures if we did not, where the latter included overt claims that those who do not support the current calls for a boycott are akin to racists in apartheid South Africa, protesting the cultural and (limited) academic boycott of the time.

In response to a question at the February meeting, the vice-chancellor interim noted that UCT has no existing affiliations with Israeli institutions. At both the February and March meetings, some members of Senate argued that we can have no impact on the situation in Gaza, given the relative insignificance of any university – never mind one in the Global South – in this conflict, where even the views expressed by powerful nations make no difference.

As noted above, the university does, however, have information related to the potential impact for UCT, and the likelihood of these impacts is near-certain, compared with the vanishingly unlikely possibility that a UCT boycott of Israel will do anything beyond simply allowing us to feel virtuous about our actions.

While this information has not been shared with Senate, one might hope that a room filled mostly with professors would anticipate that a small (in a relative sense, both in terms of political and financial authority) university cannot affect a war in another country, and that – if there are potentially severe negative consequences (again, something that one would hope they’d anticipate) – it would be foolhardy to embrace the possibility of such a boycott, until the consequences of doing so were known. Not the consequences for Gazans or Israelis, but the consequences for UCT.

The possible consequences include cancellation of grants awarded to the university. Yet raising this as an objection is where misguided – and anti-Semitic – assertions about the role of money and who wields financial power begin. They are misguided because one grant, no matter how substantial, is a place-holder for expressing a concern about the future of UCT as a university, and the possibility of undermining UCT’s ability to continue performing its core functions, rather than UCT becoming a vehicle for attempting to influence events that fall outside of those functions. Awarding a substantial grant is a vote of confidence in UCT; retracting it sends the exact opposite message, and could well affect future donations, enrolments, or something else – we simply do not know.

It cannot be denied that occasions of immense suffering, destruction, and inhumanity will motivate – and fully justify – our individual desires to balance the moral scales in any manner available to us. But the Senate of UCT – and UCT in general – lacks the resources and influence to achieve most of what each of us individually cares about, or are even appalled by.

Read literally… the adoption of this motion would mean that UCT might need to expel any student studying abroad, if funded by an Israeli university; and that we could no longer collaborate in any research involving a multinational funder such as the World Bank.

UCT, and universities in general, nevertheless do play a key role in balancing the moral scales, both nationally and internationally, in producing knowledge and training scholars who can do so in perpetuity, long after each of them have moved on. The same is no doubt a cause pursued by many Israeli scholars, who are powerless against factors that could well include the might of the state, but also the simple pragmatic reality of maintaining job security and a settled home. As a colleague at Senate said on Friday, the ANC facilitated engagement with some South African academics and universities under apartheid, precisely because individuals who might be working towards the same ends as them should not be treated as if they were members of the National Party, by default.

Academic staff at universities help save lives; rebuild communities; repair dysfunctional systems of various sorts; and invent or innovate to assist our environment and all the creatures on it. That is their task, and also, what unites them as members of a senate or similar body. Acknowledging and committing to that role does not suggest that other causes are not worthy of outrage or action. It asserts a different claim, namely that we have an existing mutual interest that might be compromised through attempting to intervene in situations that have little bearing on us, and that we cannot affect in any case.

That existing mutual interest includes not only the recognition that complex matters require comprehensive evidence before reaching conclusions (especially when the university might be placed at relational, reputational, and financial risk); but also a recognition that scholarship requires academic freedom, where the state or another influential body cannot silence intellectual debate.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

Israel has by all accounts destroyed every university in Gaza. If there are academics in Israel who share our horror at this, as well as the destruction of (presumably) most bakeries, restaurants, or whatever industry you care to mention – universities are not a special loss in many senses – those calling for the boycott are saying we cannot speak to them, and help share what knowledge we can to understand and maybe improve the situation in some way.

The Senate will, on Monday, vote on the following resolution:

[The] University of Cape Town resolves to not participate and cooperate in any events, activities, agreements, or projects involving Israeli academic institutions, research entities, lobby groups, corporations, foundations, academic forums and entities that accept funding from Israel. This stance will be maintained until these institutions clearly condemn the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people at the hands of the Israeli state; until these institutions categorically condemn violation of Palestinian human rights and violations of international law; and, until they announce their commitment to safeguarding Palestinian people’s right to life, equality and dignity.

Read literally (but appreciating that the wording is opaque), the adoption of this motion would mean that UCT might need to expel any student studying abroad, if funded by an Israeli university; and that we could no longer collaborate in any research involving a multinational funder such as the World Bank. It would also mean developing tests for what counts as “clear” or “categorical” condemnation, versus some lesser form thereof; as well as some mechanism for determining the sincerity of commitments to safeguarding the interests of the Palestinian people.

It is effective as a statement of moral outrage, and asserts a conviction that seems to be shared by many within Senate, including myself. However, the implications of adopting it are unknown, except insofar as they are a clear overstepping of what it is that we do, and what we can affect.

This is why a counter-motion was put to Senate on Friday, calling for the establishment of a smaller group (the UCT Senate comprises more than 350 members) that would advise on the consequences of decisions such as this proposed boycott for the university’s long-term prospects of doing the job it has been doing since 1918, so that Senate could make decisions in awareness of the costs in doing so.

The word “costs” can, of course, invoke a reminder of the known costs to Palestinians (and many Israelis), but that is precisely part of the point – that those are largely known or well-reported on, while the costs of a boycott, to UCT or other universities, are not. And, in the case of UCT, the possible costs to UCT might threaten the long-term sustainability of UCT’s core academic project, and the careers of generations of scholars to come.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The case for an academic boycott of Israeli universities complicit in the Gaza onslaught

The counter-motion was put to Senate for decision on Friday, but not for the decision one might expect – the vote was instead on whether it should be regarded as a counter-motion at all. This, even though the first motion called for a boycott, and the second said that any potential boycott needs to be tested against the evidence regarding the possible consequences of a boycott.

Reporting that Senate voted that it was not a counter-motion might lead one to think that, for a majority of the Senate, a long-term belief in UCT’s future is inconsequential to current moral outrage, but that is indeed what happened. On Monday, the Senate will be voting on the boycott motion itself, and one can only hope that once away from accusations of moral failure from colleagues, and abusive chanting by protesters, members of Senate will remember what it is that unites them: A fiduciary duty to the institution, and the local, regional, national and international communities it serves. DM

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics in UCT’s School of Management Studies, and is the chairperson of the Free Society Institute, a secular humanist nonprofit organisation. He has been on the academic staff since 2001, during which time he has chaired the Academic Freedom Committee, and has also served, or is serving, on various committees including Senate and the Senate Executive Committee.

Disclosure: The author is a member of the University of Cape Town’s Council. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Council, nor any other members of Senate.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • drew barrimore says:

    How many schools and universities has Russia destroyed in its invasion of the Ukraine? Didn’t spot any “moral outrage” from UCT. How many lives has Russia destroyed in the Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria? Didn’t spot any “moral outrage” from UCT. How many South African lives and livelihoods has the ANC and their stooges destroyed in RSA? All I spotted was an invite to Mr Koko Gupta.

    • Samuel Ginsberg says:

      There is no moral outrage because this is not about the actual events, it’s about hating the fact Israel exists.

      • M Noor Davids says:

        Do not forget that Israel was established at the expense of the expulsion and extermination of 750,000 Palestinians from their land! The basis of Israel cannot be justified although it enjoyed the support of European countries who were mainly guilty of antisemitism and genocide. The moral question we mauts face is whether it is just to expect Palestinians to “pay” for the sins of Europeans. This matter must be viewed from a justice persepctive. The Palestinians are innocent victims caught in a cross-fire not of their making. At the end, the Palestinians must be prepared to accommodate law-abiding Jews in their democratic state, however, strange this must sound now. But who knows? See what happened in South Africa? The future remains unceratin but open! Free the land and people of Palestine!

      • Jameel A says:

        Calm down Samuel. As the Norse folktale holds, you have no enemies.

      • Jameel A says:

        Calm down Samuel. As the Norse folktale holds, you have no enemies.

  • Graeme Bird says:

    The more pressure that can be put on Israel, the better. Whether it’s through largely symbolic gestures like that aimed at by activists at UCT or the much more significant ICJ matter. Ultimately it was boycotts that forced the hand of the apartheid regime in South Africa and Israel clearly deserves the same.

  • jeremy seekings says:

    Jacques is right to sound the alarm but he underestimates the reach of the motion to be voted on. The cost in terms of the loss of research funding is immense. Moreover, if passed, UCT academics and students would not be able to participate in any international conference or network involving also Israeli scholars or students. This would preclude not only involvement in most international health networks (including the WHO) but also conferences such as those organised by (in my own field) the International Political Science Association or the International Sociology Association or any of the African Studies Associations. Even if we believe that universities should be pronouncing on international matters such as atrocities in Israel/Gaza (or Ukraine, where the ICJ condemned the Russian invasion more emphatically than Israeli operations in Gaza, or Sudan, or other places) – which I do not – then we should be very wary of imposing huge costs on the university for very small gains, as Jacques concludes.

  • Johan Buys says:

    This comes soon after UCT gave a pedestal to Koko, one of the prime Zupta state capture puppets!

    UCT was quick to say it was not a lecture, but giving corrupt individuals any airtime is wrong.

    As to Gaza: issue a statement condemning abuses by both sides and pray for peace. Nobody in the rest of the world actually cares or notices what UCT thinks about a war half a world away. We have such big problems right here, focus the university’s considerable resource at solving those first.

  • Peter Holmes says:

    The article clearly questions the effectiveness of such a boycott on Israel as a whole, and the potential cost to UCT. If the UCT Senate supports the call, they will simply be cutting off their academic noses to spite their faces. I was on the UCT academic staff during the academic boycott of SA. Many academics felt “why target me, I don’t support the government/apartheid, so why me?” If the Senate supports the motion(s), would it not be a tad hypocrtical. Finally, “ivory tower” academics such as Pierre de Vos and others in largely theory-based disciplines (humanities) might be able (academically) to afford a boycott; those in the hard, empirical sciences (see my Friday comment in response to Pierre de Vos) simply cannot afford the luxury.

    • Justin Brown says:

      The reference to the South African academic boycott in the 1980s is an interesting one. That boycott was a way to remind English-speaking White liberals at places like UCT that they could not hide in their ivory towers. They were part of society and were also among the beneficiaries of Apartheid. Simply mouthing opposition to the system and voting for the likes of Colin Eglin was not enough. Academics were required to stand with the oppressed. Many did this. Those who did not should not be allowed to escape criticism in my opinion. The academic boycott mirrored the sports boycott. No normal sport in an abonormal society. No lily-white cricket teams representing South Africa. I regard the situation in Israel/Palestine as highly abnormal. I believe that UCT should take a stand on this (as well as many other issues). The form the stand takes is what is being debated at the moment.

  • Nicola Illing says:

    A good summary of critical choices to be made by Senate members tomorrow. UCT Senate needs to find a constructive way forward.

  • Lil Mars says:

    The comment ‘UCT has no existing affiliations with Israeli institutions’ seems to indicate that that this vote is nothing but bluster and virtue signaling.

    • Nicola Illing says:

      Many of our funding agencies are international consortiums- & Israel contributes to them. For example, we would not be able to receive funds from prestigious hunan frontier science (HFSP) grants. These are lifelines as local funding for research shrinks.

    • Bill Gild says:

      Of course it is nothing but “bluster and virtue signalling”, but when the student mobs begin burning stuff and intimidating faculty and other students, it becomes a whole different ballgame.

  • Steve Du Plessis says:

    Why not call for the release of the hostages and the Hamas rapists putting down their arms and facing justice for their crimes against humanity. Then you could save the university and be on the right side of history with morals intact

    • Camille Augustus says:

      Israel has killed 31 000, mostly women and children, and plans to kill many more. Children are now dying of starvation daily, while bombs drop on them. Nothing justifies this. Well done to UCT for keeping the pressure on.

      • Nick Robert says:

        It’s interesting that none of the neighbouring Arab countries are taking refugees.
        Furthermore, why is it that Hamas refuses to let their people move off and save themselves?
        Morality is a fine edge

      • Samuel Ginsberg says:

        Amazing. Hamas can’t supply a list of names of hostages that they hold but they can tell you exactly how many people have died.
        When they were accusing Israel of bombing Al Ahli hospital there were about 500 claimed deaths. When it turned out that it was their own rocket that suddenly plummeted to 10. A sure sign that they’re just inventing numbers.
        Did you notice that in a population split equally between men and women they somehow have mostly female deaths. Does that seem even vaguely plausible?
        And how many of their deaths are armed fighters? Hard to say because they claim them all as civilians. Thinking of which… Why is it that Hamas fighters don’t wear uniforms? A rational analysis might notice that wearing uniforms would reduce the chances of civilians dying. Maybe that’s what Hamas wants.

    • John P says:

      This standard comment from Steve has been dealt with by many others many times and yet here it is again. Give up already.

  • Bill Gild says:

    UCT, together with the current South African government, has become largely irrelevant domestically, and totally irrelevant internationally. The rot began with Max Price’s appeasement of the criminal element(s), and continues apace at the hands of the “woke” and their progeny.
    So, by all means, Senate, vote for the motion at hand, and cement the fall of a once proud and decent institution.

  • Bear Naidoo says:

    Excellent write-up on the greater, holistic view involving not just two countries at war, but the Middle-East crisis as a whole and what politicising education does as a consequence.

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    I have previously argued in UCT’s Senate that the kinds of motions being discussed effectively punish anyone with links to Israel, as well as Israeli academics – Jewish and Muslim – who have links with us, rather than having any influence whatsoever on the Israeli state. In other words, the outrage is misdirected, because we ought to be making common ground with Israeli colleagues, rather than trying to (however ineffectually) “punish” them.

  • Dov de Jong says:

    The DM and also the writer perpetuate the lie that this is an Israeli Palestinian war.
    It is not.
    It is an Israeli Hamas war.
    This distinction is crucial to the narrative.

    • John P says:

      In that case explain the destruction of Gazan infrastructure, the civilian death toll, the hundreds of thousands of injured and the constant rhetoric from the right wing government.

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