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PACBI-South Africa: Palestinian Solidarity - The Responsibility of South African Intellectuals

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Nina Butler | | 17 May 2012

South Africa: Palestinian Solidarity - The Responsibility of South African Intellectuals

The South African academic community should break out of its "silent and inert", albeit sympathetic, posture toward the Palestinians and fully reject cooperation with Israeli institutions.

"I wish you empowerment to resist; to fight for social and economic justice; to win your real freedom and equal rights."

These are the stirring words of Omar Barghouti in his open letter to "people of conscience in the West". The prominent Palestinian human rights activist, researcher, author and commentator gave indication of the poetic ability and charisma that inspires this letter in a discussion over Skype with students and academics at Rhodes University on Thursday 3 May 2012. The newly established Rhodes University Palestinian Solidarity Forum (PSF) engaged Barghouti in an attempt to maintain the momentum in Palestinian activism established during Israeli Apartheid Week and to inspire students and academics to feel the immediacy of the struggle to our own pasts and, by extension, the power South African voices can hold in the contemporary international sphere.

There is no more powerful international voice of condemnation of Israel than that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has explicitly expressed the macabre similarities between the two regimes of apartheid oppression. For a South African to stand before a destroyed Palestinian home in the West Bank, or a checkpoint, in the process of performing racist and degrading daily rituals, to say, "I have been there, I have lived this", holds an unprecedented significance. Knowingly, the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign have candidly based their agenda and discourse on the international anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. Palestinians are cognisant of the potentiality of the emotive cord that joins us. Professor Adam Habib, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, in a recent conversation with me, recalled how Palestinian academics imparted the moving reflection on him that, compared to the bi-partisan stance of many academic institutions globally, and governments for that matter, Palestinians "expect more from South Africa...we expect different"

Barghouti continues:

"I wish you Egypt so you can rekindle the spirit of the South African anti-apartheid struggle by holding Israel accountable to international law and universal principles of human rights."

One cannot help but draw from this that the individual conscience of South African academics in particular is being called upon. Public intellectual Noam Chomsky, a candid critic of the United States' and Israel's 'special relationship' that, he argues, is the poisonous vortex in the centre of the "fateful triangle" between the US, Israel and Palestine, has written extensively on the responsibility of intellectuals. Chomsky asserts that the privileged position intellectuals hold allows them to "expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions". Given the newfound atmosphere brought upon by political liberty and freedom of expression the SA academia resides in, we have the "leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth", and this deems the responsibility of intellectuals to be much deeper than the "responsibility of peoples".

Fittingly, over 400 of some of the most prominent academics and members of civil society, including nine vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors, 11 deans and vice-deans, 19 heads of department, COSATU, NEHAWU, and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, Kader Asmal, Zackie Achmat, Ronnie Kasrils and Jonathan "Zapiro" Shapiro, signed a petition to support the University of Johannesburg's (UJ) official termination of its relationship with Ben Gurion University (BGU) in Israel. In doing so they endorsed the evidence given by the committee in the UJ senate who argued for this motion, including Habib, Professor Steven Friedman and Salim Vally, after a 'fact-finding mission' to Israel. The case put forward to the UJ senate substantiated that BGU actively restricted and violated academic freedom, directly and deliberately collaborated with the Israeli Defence Force (an occupying military force in continuous violation of international law) and maintained the policies and practices that further entrench the discriminatory practices of the Israeli state. Despite attempts of varying proposals and methods of pressure asserted by Israeli lobbyists to resuscitate BGU's relationship and moral authority, the UJ senate unanimously passed the resolution in March 2011.

Moreover, a reliable source of authority has divulged that a particular South African university was approached by BGU, shortly after UJ passed the resolution to end official ties with the university, with a large amount of funding for water research, only to be told explicitly that their association and money was not desirable.

However, the details of this very important development in the evolution of Palestinian solidarity in South Africa have not been made public, nor does it seem likely that they will be. Nor has anything further been done at this university to formalise such sentiments, or at the very least make clear the intent of the university leadership. At the same time as the aforementioned rejection of BGU advances, Wits, UKZN and UWC publically announced they have searched their databases to find that they have no official links with Israeli institutions. Dr Saleem Badat, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, has assured me that Rhodes has no formal agreements. Beyond proclaiming innocence, South African academic institutions have remained silent and inert since then. The public signing of a petition "in solidarity with oppressed peoples" has not resulted so far in individual and institutional action.

It can be deduced from this that in the South African intellectual sphere there is a considerable amount of red tape around criticism of the Israeli state and its academic institutions, which were found to be explicitly discriminatory and prohibitive of Palestinians' right to education by the Human Rights Watch. If one were to map the landscape of South African positioning in relation to the Palestinian struggle for human rights, it appears as though outspoken support for Israeli boycott comes from the 'radical' or 'leftist' corner. The 'liberal centre' of debate and sentiment views the situation as one of conflict in which both sides have a claim to sympathy. This is not only surprising given the relatively mild influence and power of Zionist lobbying and cultural persuasion (compared to the far more extreme cases in the United States, Britain and parts of the EU), but also morally incoherent, given the parallels in our history to the current system of anachronistic colonialism in Israel, both of which are in conflict with universal notions of human dignity and freedom.


PACBI have made it clear that the success of their boycott campaign is dependent upon intellectuals refraining from the promotion of "the normalization of Israel in the global academy". Treating Israeli institutions in a manner as one would any other cog in the liberal and humane machine of the 'free world' creates a "false and harmful impression of normalcy in a patently abnormal situation of colonial oppression". This is part of the process of the "colonization of the mind of the oppressed", in which the "subject comes to believe that the oppressor's reality is normal". Entertaining an even-handed approach, or setting up three-way agreements with Israeli and Palestinian actors, in this light, is stamping legitimacy on the walled borders enclosing Palestinian consciousness.

However, it seems only natural, as someone who respects academic freedom in South Africa, that balanced debate and uncensored discussion is promoted. As Habib insists, it is imperative for the academia not to lose sight of this: "of course UJ is partial to oppressed people and by extension partial to Palestinians"; however, 'normalcy' is defined by context and the varying perspectives and roles people play. What is normal and appropriate conduct for a DVC in Ramallah is not the same for one in Johannesburg, even though they may agree in principle.

It is in traversing the complexities of the relationship between academic freedom and intellectual activism that both Habib and Badat, by drawing on the rich tapestry of their own narratives of leadership during struggle, insist that pragmatism and tactical diversification are crucial. Although a clear goal and strategy are pillars in any campaign, one needs to be flexible and inventive in how one applies them. I have been assured that there were certain agreements made in the SA anti-apartheid framework that might well have violated the boycott in the strictest sense, yet ultimately proved advantageous. Badat elaborates that one needs to extract as much support and resource as is available to you, and that includes not polarising the faction of the opposition sympathetic to your aims.

This adaptability involves remaining self-reflexive and keeping the template of boycott itself, and its effectiveness is part of the debate if one is to be able to respond to the popular reception of the campaign and to seize the 'moments' and 'ruptures' in the flow of history that spark revolutionary change. At the heart of the struggle is a delicately balanced public campaign, and this is where the academic inquiry and perception, beyond what Chomsky calls the "veil of deception" and based on an enlightened social ideology, translates into the public sphere. "What the Palestinians need to happen" in South Africa, advises Badat, "is the kind of popular mobilisation that led the brave Irish woman, Vonnie Munroe, to refuse to handle South African grapefruits" at an ordinary Dublin green grocers in 1984. Munroe's trade union had adopted SA boycott measures and she felt compelled to carry out their political mandate in her workplace. To international observers' eyes, the historical symmetry in popular support would be over-powering. Evoking memories of endless pamphleteering at train-stations and student unions, Badat adds that the momentum achieved from which such revolutionary tipping points erupt begins in the academy.


An absence of association with Israeli institutions is not an adequate reason for absence from public intellectual activism. If the boycott template is not possible or appropriate, this does not absolve SA universities from the moral responsibility of making a clear and public statement of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. The pragmatic and proactive response to signing the petition in support of UJ's landmark and internationally applauded resolution of 2011 would be to campaign within respective SA institutions for positive association with and deepened support of Palestinian academia and civil society.

This can be done, most pre-eminently, through proclaiming intent to respect the strategies of Palestinians' anti-apartheid struggle, whilst upholding the freedom and integrity of the South African academy and concretely setting in motion the reciprocal exchange of researchers, students, ideas and resources between the two countries. Moreover, the promotion of Palestinian culture through visual and performance arts, as well as the rich and progressive Palestinian literary tradition, is in itself a form of activism; the affirmation of existence by Palestinians through their cultural productions is an affirmation of resistance, and supporting this creativity is breathing life into their struggle for heritage, justice and dignity.

Such an inventive approach addresses the problem of representation Palestinians have had in western public spaces - a problem Edward Said saw as their most challenging obstacle -and begins to build the foundations for popular appeal and mobilisation beyond universities.

The transfer of energy and ideas between SA academia and public for the sake of Palestinian freedom must not be seen as a conversation in isolation from our own post-apartheid concerns. In helping others in need, we have the opportunity to sharpen our understanding of what it means to be a democratic nation in the shifting global community; how political liberty, equality and justice, becomes social liberty, equality and justice, and what responsibilities to other oppressed peoples come with the attainment of liberty. If anything is to place SA universities on the right side of history after the deplorable complicity during our apartheid, it is not only ensuring they do not remain silent or perpetuate systems of oppression inflicted upon others, but also engaging with and enriching the society upon which they are dependent in a morally responsible and enlightened manner.

"I wish you Egypt so you can decolonize your minds, for only then can you envision real liberty, real justice, real equality, and real dignity."

Nina Butler is a MA student at Rhodes University

Posted on 19-05-2012

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