Richard Falk: UCT Must Take “Moral Stand” And Boycott Israeli Institutions


Update: On Saturday, the UCT council declined to adopt the resolution of a full academic boycott of Israeli institutions, which was passed by the Senate earlier, choosing instead to send it back for an assessment process.

Statement by RICHARD FALK, former UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestine Territories (2008-2014), Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University.

I have been invited by interested parties to comment upon the decision reached by University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty Senate on March 15, 2019 in favor by a vote of 62- 43 (with 10 abstentions) of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions operating within occupied Palestinian territories as well as “Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestine territories.”

I am aware that this vote by the UCT Senate was preceded by a series of similar initiatives by other South African academic institutions and that such boycotts were encouraged by the country’s Minister of Higher Education in 2014. My statement is also made in light of the forthcoming meeting of the UCT University Council on March 30.

I would point out that these initiatives in South Africa carry enormous symbolic and substantive weight throughout the world. Because of South Africa’s experience of apartheid, and the degree to which the racist regime was finally dismantled partially as a result of a global nonviolent campaign of solidarity with those struggling for racial equality, human rights, and constitutionalism in South Africa, what is done by leading South African institutions has significant political weight in Israel and elsewhere.

There is a serious analogy between this South African background and the current realities in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT).  I was the co-author of an academic analysis commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Council for West Asia that concluded in 2017 after a comprehensive analysis of Israeli policies and practices that Israel was an apartheid state that victimised the Palestinian people as a whole on the basis of race. I mention this assessment, now rather widely accepted by civil society groups dedicated to peace and justice for both peoples, because it adds to the significance of any South African recognition of the victimisation of the Palestinian people as establishing a special kinship between the great historical victory in South Africa and the present tragic circumstances in Israel/Palestine.

My experience at the United Nations convinced me of three central conclusions relevant to the UCT upcoming Council meeting. First, the conditions of Palestinians in the OPT and elsewhere bearing on the protection of human rights exhibits flagrant and continuous Israeli violations of international law, especially the Fourth Geneva Convention. These violations include the accelerated extension of illegal settlements, annexation of Jerusalem, denial of right of return to Palestinian refugees, imposition of collective punishment, the siege of Gaza, and reliance on excessive force in ‘security’ operations.

Secondly, Israel and its overseas supporters are extremely sensitive to such findings of violations of international humanitarian law, and yet are defiant with respect to altering their unlawful behavior. And thirdly, with the failure of the UN and traditional inter-governmental diplomacy to find a solution based on international law, the prospects for peace, freedom and justice for Palestinians depend on the capacity of civil society to mount increasing nonviolent pressure on Israel, the occupying power. This reality makes it both a responsibility and opportunity to adopt various initiatives, including academic boycotts.

I have considered the two main objections to UCT initiative put forward by opponents of the Senate decision: that it interferes with academic freedom and that it singles Israel out in a manner that is discriminatory given abuses in other countries. On academic freedom the point is misleading. What is at stake here is the capacity of UCT to take a moral stand as part of its ethical integrity as an institution of higher education. Over the course of my own half century of teaching experience I often heard from students, years after their graduation that their most valuable education occurred outside of the classroom in standing up for what they
believed in.

Here this proposed academic boycott is an initiative in support of human rights, especially the inalienable right of self-determination. It gives students at UCT an invaluable opportunity to help produce citizens of conscience as part of the university’s educational mission, supplementing the imparting knowledge and the teaching of skills. Also, it is important to appreciate that the academic boycott that Palestinians have called for and that your Council is considering boycotts complicit Israeli institutions, but it does not interfere with the activities of individual academics.

As far as singling out Israel, there exist special justifications for the emphasis on Israeli wrongdoing. It should be remembered that Britain exerted control over Palestine as ‘a sacred trust’ on behalf of the international society until the establishment of the United Nations. At that point, the UN took over the responsibility to find a solution for Palestine in a manner that existed with respect to no other country in the world. The failure of the UN and international diplomacy to find a solution after seven decades reinforces the positive argument for relying on the role of civil society, which should be a decisive encouragement for the Council to endorse the Senate decision and so move with the flow of history toward freedom, justice, and the protection of basic human rights.

Moreover, as in the South African struggle against apartheid, outsiders have a moral obligation to heed the calls of the oppressed for support and effective solidarity. This obligation becomes even more critical when our own institutions are involved, however indirectly, in maintaining a system of prolonged oppression. Palestinians are basically asking the University of Cape Town not to impair their struggle for freedom and justice. Maintaining academic relations with Israeli universities that are deeply implicated in serious human rights violations does harm to that struggle and impedes emancipation.

An academic boycott, as carefully framed by the UCT Senate decision, is an entirely appropriate and constructive response given the values at stake.

Richard Falk is a former United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestine Territories (2008-2014), and Professor of International Law, Emeritus, Princeton University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.

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