In 1986 the Irish academic and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien was scheduled to present a series of lectures at the University of Cape Town, having being invited by the Department of Political Science at that university. His presence on a South African campus was a clear violation of the academic boycott, whose objective was to isolate the apartheid regime and thus contribute to the struggle for freedom.
The boycott meant that no foreign academics, scholars, artists, musicians and other cultural representatives would visit South Africa as long as the government kept the people of South Africa in a state of oppression and subjugation. UCT students protested against the presence of Professor O’Brien on campus and eventually his tour was cancelled.
We are faced with a similar situation as the “O’Brien affair”, as it was then known, with the attendance of several Israeli delegates at the forthcoming Recognition, Reparation and Reconciliation conference at Stellenbosch University in December. On the surface of it, the usual arguments of academic freedom would seem to apply. However, the presence of Israeli academics on South African campuses and at conferences is problematic for a range of reasons.
First, Israel is an apartheid state that has dispossessed the Palestinian people of their land since 1948. It wages an ongoing and brutal war on the people of Gaza, has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, encourages and abets illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, and murders, tortures and imprisons activists who agitate for human rights for Palestinians.
Some have used the notion of academic freedom to argue that dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian academics at conferences can help each side understand each other better and allow moderate voices to prevail. The idea is for both sides to arrive at a mutual understanding of each other’s realities with a view to building empathy. Such a view is duplicitous. Conversations about reconciliation and forgiveness, major themes of the Stellenbosch conference, have no place as long as Israel continues to violate the human rights of the Palestinian people.
In the absence of justice for Palestinians, such academic conversations serve to normalise the conflict, making it a human drama where each side is morally and ethically equal. This is clearly not the case. Normalisation absolves the perpetrators of oppression and tempers the urgency for a just peace in Palestine.
Second, while Israeli academics are free to travel to academic conferences around the world, the same is not true for their Palestinian counterparts. Academics in Gaza live in what is the world’s largest open-air prison. They are unable to travel outside of the Strip. Those in the West Bank face severe limits on their freedom of movement, expression, and peaceful assembly.
Palestinian academics and students have to endure frequent Israeli military invasions of their campuses, arrests, and limits to visits from international scholars, not to mention the bombing of universities and schools in Gaza. It is therefore disingenuous for a conference to allow Israeli delegates to attend while their government stifles the academic freedom of Palestinians.
Third, the academic boycott of Israel plays an important role in isolating Israeli society, in the same way that apartheid South Africa was isolated. The message to Israeli academics should be clear and unambiguous. If they do not explicitly disavow the actions of their government, call for equal rights for Palestinians, demand an end to the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and an end to the siege of Gaza and support the right of Palestinians to return to the lands that were lost in 1948, they are not welcome to attend conferences in our country.
Isolation of Israeli academics will help them understand their complicity with the Israeli state and can encourage them to campaign for change in their own communities.
Academic freedom is of great consequence to society and forms part of a range of freedoms that have been hard won in our country. It is therefore not a matter to be taken lightly. However, no values exist outside of a political context. South African apartheid was defeated in part because of the isolation of the country, including the isolation of the South African academy.
An end to the oppression of the Palestinian people can similarly be hastened by isolating the Israeli state, including its academic institutions. In the same way that Connor Cruise O’Brien was discouraged from lecturing at the University of Cape Town, Israeli academics should be discouraged from attending international conferences, including the Recognition, Reparation and Reconciliation conference next month.
Pressure on visiting Israeli academics forms part of the moral imperative for South African academics and activists. DM
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