UCT and the proposed academic boycott of Israel

As published in Daily Maverick, 10 March 2024

The University of Cape Town’s Senate convened on February 23 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 March 8, 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 March 8 meeting below, after concluding a brief overview of relevant history.

This was not the first time that motions to condemn or boycott Israel have 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 In 2019, Senate did in fact pass a limited boycott motion, which was later that year rescinded by Senate, after Council had declined to support the motion, choosing instead to refer it back to Senate while simultaneously engaging in a review of the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presented to a plenary meeting of Council, not least because by the time that review had been completed, Senate had rescinded its previous decision, rendering (in the Council Executive’s mind, at least) the matter moot.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.

This past Friday (March 8) 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 to 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.

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.

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 over 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.

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.

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.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.