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UJ’s Curious Israel Boycott

I’m afraid I do not get the rationale behind the University of Johannesburg’s recent decision to sever ties with Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Of all of the targeted boycotts to conduct, deciding to target the very institutions where some of the most vibrant dissent against Israeli policy is likely to occur seems counterproductive. Universities are supposed to be places where the open exchange of ideas is cherished above all other things. One can easily understand opposing the Netenyahu government. But I think that the UJ folks are making a common mistake with regard to Israel — they see the entire country as being the Netenyahu government.

When I returned from Israel in the fall (it was my second trip there and I have written about Israel and the Middle East in the past) I toyed with writing an op-ed to the liberal-left newspaper Ha’aretz in the form of an open letter that was to begin:

“Dear Ha’aretz — in the American mind, you do not exist. By “you” I do not mean Israel, but rather the rather substantial left that supports Israel’s right to exist as a secular Jewish state while at the same time opposing the whole range of counterproductive policies that your government carries out in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and even across the rest of Israel. For right wingers in America it is useful to see  Israel as a beleaguered monolith and all dissent as being driven by radical extremists even though, as you know, vibrant dissent is alive and well in the pages of your newspaper, in universities, and across a broad swath of society. (And ironically, for those on the right in Israel who see a friend in America’s Christianist right, be aware that for all of the lip service those Christianists do think you are going to hell for not finding Jesus — it’s sort of at the center of their worldview.) For the left, it is also useful that all of Israel be Netenyahu’s Israel, because  complexity is not in their interest. As a result, while you and I might think we know better you, Ha’aretz, do not exist.”

This is, I have come to understand, also reflective of the South African view of Israel. There is one understandable difference, however, which is that Israel has never reconciled with the fact that Israel overtly and covertly supported the National Party and Apartheid and actually increased that support when the rest of the world — including the gallingly belated Americans and Brits — had finally isolated Pretoria’s securocrats. So I understand the sentiments of members of the ANC and other prominent South Africans who advocate a boycott, I firmly believe that many Israelis are blind to their complicity in buttressing Apartheid, but I still think severing ties with Ben Gurion will accomplish little, is shortsighted and amounts to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. After all, the notable collaboration between the two universities involved biotechnology and water purification in South Africa. South Africa is right to oppose many of the policies of Israel’s intransigent right-wing government. But Israeli universities are not only not the government, they are also often among the most vibrant sources of dissent from that government.