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Palestinian solidarity and the responsibility of South African intellectuals

By Nina Butler

“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 gave an indication of the poetic ability and charisma that inspires this letter in a recent discussion over Skype. The newly established Rhodes University Palestinian Solidarity Forum (RUPSF) engaged Barghouti in an attempt 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.

Palestinians are cognisant of the potentiality of the emotive cord that joins us: the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign have candidly based their agenda and discourse on the international anti-apartheid campaigns of the 80s and 90s. Professor Adam Habib, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), 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, Palestinians “expect more from South Africa”, “we expect different”.

Public intellectual Noam Chomsky, a candid critic of the United States’ and Israel’s conduct in Middle East politics, 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 that 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, signed a petition to support the University of Johannesburg’s official termination of relationship with Ben Gurion University (BGU) in Israel. In doing so they endorsed the evidence put forward to the UJ senate, substantiating BGU’s active restriction and violation of academic freedom, direct and deliberate collaboration with the Israeli defence force (an occupying military force in continuous violation of international law), and maintenance of the policies and practices that further entrench the discriminatory practices of the Israeli state. The UJ senate unanimously passed the landmark resolution in March 2011.

Shortly afterwards, a reliable source of authority has divulged that a particular South African university was approached by BGU with a large amount of funding for water research, only to be told explicitly that their association and money was not desirable.

The details of this important development in the evolution of Palestinian solidarity in South Africa have not been made public, nor has anything further been done at this university to formalise such political sentiments. 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, too, 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 public 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. This is not only surprising given the relatively mild influence and power of Zionist lobbying and cultural persuasion, but it is also morally incoherent given the parallels in our history to the current system of anachronistic colonialism in Israel, and the way in which we view this history as something in conflict with universal notions of human dignity and freedom.

Avoiding ‘normalisation’ in the context of academic freedom
PACBI have made it clear that the success of their boycott campaign is dependent upon intellectuals refraining from the promotion of “the normalisation 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 “colonisation 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 within which. 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 although a clear goal and strategy are pillars in any campaign, pragmatism and tactical diversification are crucial. 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, 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 the “veil of deception”, to quote Chomsky again, 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. Evoking memories of endless pamphleteering at train-stations and student unions, the vice-chancellor adds that the momentum achieved from such revolutionary tipping points begins in the academy.

Inventing pragmatic and proactive strategies that reverberate publically
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 academy, and concretely setting in motion the reciprocal exchange of ideas and resources between the two countries. Moreover, the promotion of Palestinian culture through literary, visual, and performance arts 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.

The transfer of energy and ideas between the 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; we have the opportunity to sharpen our understanding of how political justice translates to social justice. 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 it is most importantly that they engage with and enrich the society upon which they are dependent in a morally responsible and enlightened manner.

“I wish you Egypt so you can decolonise 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.

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