Anti-Israel activists appear to be attempting to improperly influence a survey issued by the University of Cape Town (UCT) over a possible academic boycott of Israeli universities.

As UCT is calling for stakeholders to participate in the survey on whether or not to institute an academic boycott, aggressive views aired on social media, and a call for a response by non-stakeholders could skew the outcome against Israel.

A man named Haroon Aziz has put out a WhatsApp message calling on people who have nothing to do with UCT to complete the survey, tick the donor box, and make their anti-Israel views known.

It all started on 15 March, when the university’s senate voted for a motion that, “UCT will not enter into any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human-rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories.” 

This motion was taken to the university’s council, its highest governing body, for a final vote on 30 March. It was not adopted, and was referred back to the senate for clarification.

“In the council’s view, a number of issues required clarification and action. These included an assessment of the sustainability impact of the senate resolution, paired with a more consultative process,” wrote UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng on the university’s website.

The executive is now calling on members of the UCT community to submit their views on the senate resolution. The outcome of this, together with a sustainability impact assessment, will be tabled at the senate meeting on 13 September, according to Phakeng.

However, Aziz’s message and others like it that are believed to be doing the rounds could put a spoke in the legitimacy of the outcome.

“I was never a student at UCT, but I did the survey, and ticked donor to proceed. I added to my comments that UJ [the University of Johannesburg] was a more progressive educational institution by far, and the forerunner of a similar boycott call, which earned it international respect/recognition,” wrote Aziz.

“I asked if this time, delaying tactics and an impact study [are] more important than the moral impact of daily innocent lives being lost for the past 70 years, lives which include innocent women and defenceless babies.” 

Aziz said he would force the university to identify its council members, presumably so that they could be pressured into a decision to boycott. “In addition, I asked that they please identify their council members so the public can see who the Zionist sympathisers are. May I request that we encourage all our family and friends to copy and paste or write similar comments under the donor block?”

Sara Gon of the Institute of Race Relations, who has written extensively on the subject, says she doesn’t think it will have an effect on the survey. “It’s not slick enough,” she says. “My main concern is that no mention is made of consideration of the ethics of the matter. The vice-chancellor should not have called for comment on the resolution, because it sets the unambiguous tone of the anti-Israel viewpoint. She should have quoted the resolution, and first asked whether such a resolution should be considered at all,” Gon says.

Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies, says, “My sense is that the survey will demonstrate how divisive this issue is within the broad UCT community. Beyond that, it is unclear what, if anything, will come from this exercise.

“To my knowledge, it’s very unusual. I can think of no other occasion when staff, students, donors, and alumni have been polled on anything in such an open fashion, including the selection of the chancellor. The survey does seemingly rely on trust and good faith,” he says.

In response to questions from the SA Jewish Report, Elijah Moholola from the university’s media office said, “It is deeply disconcerting that WhatsApp messages such as these are circulating. UCT rejects such attempts to skew the request for input and its outcome.”

UCT has a verification process in place for donors making input on the matter, he says. “Donors are requested to indicate their identity [name and surname] and contact details online as part of making their input. This is then checked against UCT’s list of donors, and their identity is confirmed.

“For other groups in the UCT community [staff and students] the relevant identification number [staff/student number] is required when giving input, and for alumni, the year of graduation [is required], which is then checked against UCT’s records,” he says. “The names of all UCT council members have always been publicly available on the university website.” 

Jordan Seligmann of Progress SA (an organisation fighting extremism on campus), says, “We believe public consultation is necessary in this issue. Up until this point, the proposal has been considered behind closed doors to the point where many academics who sit on the university senate were unaware of this proposal until we brought it to their attention. However, that being said, UCT must be aware of this campaign of ballot stuffing, and must scrutinise each submission. We have seen boycott supporters say that they don’t care what the impact will be on UCT as long as this proposal goes through. It reveals that they are ideologues who don’t care about the damage done to UCT with this proposal.”

The call for the survey to push for an academic boycott also exists on Twitter. “Fellow alums, students, staff, tell UCT [that] Israel is a settler colonial apartheid state in which universities play an instrumental role. The academic boycott is urgent!” wrote Kelly-Jo Bluen.

The UCT Palestinian Solidarity Forum wrote, “Urging all students, donors, and alumnus to put their support behind a campaign that is both in line with the universities own vision and transformation goals, as well social justice. It’s of vital importance that we all complete this survey, and let the university know that we stand behind the #IsraeliAcademicBoycott.”

Says Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, “We believe this is an important and constructive process. We urge people who are connected and care about the university to communicate with UCT, and have their voices heard on this critical topic.”

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Date published: 04/07/2019
Written by: Tali Feinberg
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