At a closed-doors meeting last week, the University of Cape Town’s umbrella student organization adopted a proposal pushing for Boycott, Sanction, and Divest measures against Israel for all student-run organizations and events. University management must this week decide whether to adopt it. Jewish students fear their campus organization may be banned, and that they are in for a nightmarish period.
In line with the vituperative anti-Israel rhetoric sweeping South Africa since the start of Operation Protective Edge, the University of Cape Town Student Representative Council voted last Monday to adopt a resolution supporting BDS, declaring Israel an apartheid state, and calling for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador.
The student council represents and intercedes on behalf of the 27,000 students at UCT. After the vote, the council delivered its proposal, which had been pushed forward by the Palestine Solidarity Forum, to UCT’s management, asking it to adopt the BDS measures across the board at the university. The management has seven working days to respond.
According to an email by UCT’s South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) head Luigi Bonfig, the resolution passed last Monday with nine votes in favor, three against, and three abstentions. UCT’s SAUJS was tipped off about the secret vote by an unnamed highly placed individual, wrote Bonfig. SAUJS is the only Jewish organization in South Africa that caters to young adults, outside of individual synagogues, making it the go-to place for most Jewish students.
“This resolution stands in contravention of the South African Constitution and the enshrined rights which the Bill of Rights was purposed to protect,” wrote Bonfig. “This resolution contrary to the spirit, purport and object of the Bill of Rights has taken a position which is heavily biased, aggressive and divisive on campus that has embarked historically and presently, to represent the views and opinions of all South Africans.”
In the United Kingdom last week, Britain’s National Student Union executive council also voted on a proposal pushing the country’s student unions to adopt BDS measures. The motion was passed as an amendment to a larger motion condemning “the collective punishment and killing in Gaza.”
There, members of the National Executive Council of the National Union of Students (NUS) approved the motion with 23 for, 18 against, and one abstention, according to a report in Impact, the University of Nottingham’s official student newspaper.
Are SA’s Jewish students to live in atmosphere of fear, ask leaders?
Carla Frumer, the SAUJS National Zionist officer and treasurer for SAUJS in Cape Town, told The Times of Israel her Cape Town chapter is concerned it will be “deregistered” under the new guidelines.
“The reason why it’s so profound is because the SRC is very involved with the different student societies; the SRC regulates the activities, guest speakers, what’s allowed, what’s not allowed,” said Frumer.
“These are people who say “‘Zionism is racism,’ ‘do away with Zionism.’ It affects everything! If they prove we are a Zionist organization and support Israel, they can have us banned and seek to deregister us,” said Frumer.
On Thursday UCT’s Palestine Solidarity Forum held a large vocal rally on campus, proclaiming Israel an apartheid state and pushing for BDS measures. After the rally, Frumer sounded clearly shaken when speaking with The Times of Israel about the resolution, and concerned UCT’s Jewish students could live in an atmosphere of fear and threats.
During a follow-up conversation Sunday, after meeting with the South Africa Board of Jewish Deputies Thursday night and the head of SAUJS, Ariella Carno — all currently in Cape Town for the biannual Zionist conference — Frumer reported the UCT Jewish students have decided to continue their events as scheduled, as well as retain precautionary legal council.
“We shouldn’t be ashamed of our Zionist identity,” said Frumer. The Cape Town students decided to hold a joint Jewish community rally Sunday afternoon to show support for Israel. The event was emceed by UCT SAUJS head Bonfig and drew an estimated 3,000-5,000.
However, the atmosphere in Cape Town is still charged from Saturday’s mass pro-Palestinian march. Cape Town’s executive director for safety and security Richard Bosman estimated the crowd at 30,000 to 50,000, making it one of the biggest rallies the city has seen since the end of apartheid, according to AFP.
The march was organized by the National Coalition for Palestine, an umbrella organization of some 30 religious and civil societies, trade unions and political parties. Among the political parties was the youth league of the ruling African National Congress, whose members have called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador.
At the march, shouts of “Free Palestine” were heard and the NCP called for “decisive action from the South African government against the Israeli attacks, killings, displacement and destruction of the Gaza Strip,” reported AFP.
‘There’s nothing wrong with standing up for your beliefs’
Head of SAUJS Carno said the atmosphere in South Africa is not pleasant for Jews at this time, but said it is the same story each time there is a conflict in Gaza.
In fact, she said, the University of Johannesburg weathered a similar student council resolution several years ago, which has since been overturned.
She said at UJ the resolution was passed by the umbrella student body, but not by the management. She predicted this would be the case at UCT as well.
“Even it wasn’t adopted [by the UJ management], it gave us a very difficult year. Israel apartheid week was an absolute nightmare,” said Carno.
Although the University of Johannesburg did not adopt a full BDS resolution, UJ has participated in an academic boycott of Israeli institutions since 2010, beginning with Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.
At UJ Wednesday, controversial Israeli-born University of Exeter professor Ilan Pappé told a packed hall that the key to peace is making Israel “a pariah state, a rogue state through BDS.”
“That is far more moral and effective than any number of bombs,” Pappé said, according to the Middle East Monitor.
SAUJS national head Carno, however, advised the UCT Jewish students to continue their Israel events as planned.
“An Israel event is not being manufactured in Israel,” quipped Carno.
“You don’t need to be purposefully antagonistic but there’s nothing wrong with standing up for your beliefs. Be proud to wear your kippa,” said Carno, mentioning a recent Tefilin for Israel event held at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University.
Carno, who is habituated to Johannesburg’s more threatening anti-Israel rhetoric, understands that UCT’s Jewish students were initially shaken by Thursday’s anti-Israel rally on campus.
“When students are standing against you, it makes you want to run away and hide under a cupboard,” she said. She urged the UCT students to “be proud to be Zionist, there’s nothing to be afraid of. If you want to wear an IDF jersey on campus, go ahead,” said Carno.
Carno said students shouldn’t be complacent, but she thinks the BDS resolution is a “fixable situation.”
The UCT school year is from January through December and new student elections are slated for October. Potentially a new vote could be held then.
“These situations are related to the current situation in Israel. Everytime there’s a conflict, campuses go crazy. And then there’s peace and everyone worries about passing exams again,” said Carno.
Editor’s note: In a letter to The Times of Israel, University of Cape Town has responded to this article saying it conveys an unrealistic sense of anxiety.