U of Cape Town: A safe space for vigorous debate

U of Cape Town: A safe space for vigorous debate

UCT says a Times of Israel report on fears over students’ pro-BDS vote conveyed an unrealistic sense of anxiety

The article titled “After Cape Town students pass BDS, Jews fear campus nightmare” (Times of Israel, 11 August 2014) relies on biased reporting that is based on the hysterical speculations of two individuals. It conveys an unrealistic sense of anxiety at the University of Cape Town (UCT), without any investigation into whether their speculations are factual and no effort to solicit views from UCT management or other parties.

Fortunately, quotes attributed to the head of the SA Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), Ariella Carno, bring some sanity to the discussion. However, several serious falsehoods that were presented need to be corrected.

It is true that the Student Representative Council (SRC) at UCT passed a resolution to support Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) measures against Israel. However, there is no call to ban or restrict any Jewish organisation at UCT, as alleged in the article. And even if there had been such a call, the SRC does not have the unilateral power to de-register any student organisation. So the hyper-anxiety expressed about SAUJS being deregistered, about limiting access to resources or venues, is entirely misplaced. In fact, the opposite is true.

The protection of the rights of the Palestinian Solidarity Forum (PSF) and the SRC to hold views and pass resolutions is extended equally to SAUJS, reflecting the fundamental values of the university’s commitment to academic freedom. Thus, for example, the SRC does not have the right to dictate which speakers will be invited onto campus, what activities will be allowed, or what political views (such as Zionism or pro-Hamas support) may be expressed. For this reason UCT would be very unlikely to support an academic boycott against Israel, almost regardless of what the majority might think of Israel’s politics and actions.

Your article asks if South Africa’s Jewish students are to live in an atmosphere of fear. The atmosphere is indeed tense, not because of an SRC resolution or a large protest march, but because there are very many students who identify with the plight of the Palestinians and are angry about the scale of civilian deaths and casualties in Gaza. Their perception is that this is not justifiable and they are challenging other students who believe Israel’s actions are justified. (And let me emphasise that there are Jewish students on both sides of the debate.) It is the mission of any self-respecting university to ensure that those tensions and passions are channelled into vigorous debate, and to create and preserve the safe space for that debate to happen. Closing down such debate would be anathema to our values, provided there are no contraventions of the law or constitution (such as the use of hate speech).

UCT has been asked by the PSF and the SRC to take a stand on BDS. Whatever the university leadership decides, it will certainly be in defence of academic freedom and the protection of the rights of all student organisations to organise and express their views.

Dr Max Price
University of Cape Town, South Africa

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