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Matthew Kalman, The Chronicle of Higher Education
March 24, 2011
The international campaign for an academic boycott of Israel claimed its first success on Wednesday when the University of Johannesburg Senate voted to pull out of a two-year-old joint research project with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to battle algae that are infesting the South African city's reservoir.
The vote means that the University of Johannesburg is the first academic institution in the world to formally cut ties with an Israeli university as a result of pressure by supporters of the international boycott campaign.
In a written statement, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel working group lauded the move, saying it set a "worldwide precedent."
The Senate vote followed a decision last September to end links with its Israeli counterpart if it found "direct or indirect military implications" to the relationship. The Senate had called on Ben-Gurion to form partnerships with Palestinian universities and ordered a review of the ties between the two institutions before April.
A fact-finding mission of officials from Johannesburg visited Ben-Gurion in February to see conditions on the Israeli campus for themselves. Ben-Gurion officials believed the visit had been a success. They are proud of the praise heaped on the university by Nelson Mandela when he accepted an honorary doctorate there, in 1997. The university conducts a number of joint projects, particularly on water and desert research, with Palestinian and Jordanian institutions and scholars.
The Ben-Gurion Student Association's chairman, Uri Keidar, who met the delegation from South Africa, wrote to its members afterward, saying, "I find it difficult to believe that BGU, the home of 20,000 free-thinking students of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, is under this brutal attack. These accusations, although faulty, are being presented as scholarly facts, which I find very disturbing."
But University of Johannesburg officials told the Senate before Wednesday's vote that no Palestinian university had been found to team up with Ben-Gurion on the algae project. Sixty percent of the Senate voted to cancel the research agreement in a secret ballot.
The University of Johannesburg's Petition Committee, which led the campaign, said in a prepared statement that the Senate had also found "significant" evidence that Ben-Gurion's research and other projects supported the Israeli military and, in particular, its occupation of Gaza.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but tensions and cross-border violence persist, including rocket fire from Gaza in recent days that was met with Israeli airstrikes.
The University of Johannesburg "is the first institution to officially sever relations with an Israeli university—a landmark moment in the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions of Israel campaign," said the committee, hoping that it would trigger "a domino boycott effect."
Zev Krengel, national chair of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, condemned the vote as "playing to narrow-minded political prejudice and ... a severe setback for constructive intellectual engagement in South Africa."
"Rather than availing itself of a scientific cooperative project in the water-purification field that has enormous potential benefits for South Africa," Mr. Krengel said, the university "has chosen instead to further the agenda of a group of anti-Israel agitators."
Ben-Gurion University officials said they regretted the Johannesburg decision and stood by their record of cross-border co-operation with Palestinian and other institutions.
"Canceling this agreement, which was designed to solve real problems of water contamination in a reservoir near Johannesburg, will only hurt the residents of South Africa," said the university's president, Rivka Carmi. "The only losers in this decision are the people of South Africa."