Saturday, March 26, 2011

In Defense of Ben-Gurion University

On Friday, the University of Johannesburg cut its formal 25-year relationship with Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beer Sheva, Israel. The news has particular significance given South Africa's apartheid history.

However, the news also warrants serious concern.

Firstly, the boycott harms anti-occupation efforts rather than helping them. It's simply non-sensical to boycott BGU in order to promote ending occupation because some of Israel's most radically liberal and vocal occupation critics are professors at BGU. Dr. Oren Yiftahel's book Ethnocracy defined the academic discourse over racial discrimination in Israel. Dr. Neve Gordon published an LA Times editorial asking Americans to boycott his own country. His right to do so was upheld by the president of the University, Dr. Rivka Carmi. Dr. David Newman is a well-known columnist for the Jerusalem Post where he consistently is critical of Israeli government policies. Boycotting BGU means boycotting the institution which financially supports some of the most anti-occupation activists in Israel, if not the world.

Secondly, academic boycotts violate the doctrine of academic freedom. Those professors who are tenured at the University of Johannesburg base their economic well-being on a commitment to the freedom of ideas. To cause intentional harm to a similar arena of discourse compromises this freedom. The academy creates progress by advancing good ideas and demonstrating the flaws of bad ideas, not by censoring them. As a Ph.D student myself, I have seen firsthand how this process is at the heart of the academy's ability to function and progress.

Finally, the boycott distracts from the real issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The boycott is Nyquil Diplomacy, helping UJ supporters of divestment sleep better. But I defy anyone to explain how it helps children under rocket attack in Sderot, or mortar fire in Gaza for no fault of their own. Had the UJ resolution supporters each given a single South African rand instead, it could have been used to buy medical equipment, or food, or to promote collaboration between rights activists in the two countries, or to fund BGU-Bir-Zeit collaboration. Ineffective boycotts are an annoyance, but slacktivist resolutions in the face of the humanitarian emergency that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are reprehensible. Given a chance to make a real difference on the ground, the UJ supporters of boycott chose to further isolate a country which already has a siege mentality, cut off those who support Palestinian rights, and damage the legitimacy of the academy in the process.

As a former student at BGU (full disclosure), I have seen firsthand the positive role it plays in the political life of the State of Israel. The range of thoughtful and intellectual people I encountered during my studies was as wide as at any South African, European, or American university. Discussion of human rights, discrimination, and security policy was not censored but encouraged in my classes. For any university to sever ties over BGU's supposed lack of academic legitimacy is not only beyond ironic, but an unfortunate misunderstanding of the realities on the ground in Israel.

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