Peter Haas on The University of South Africa and Ben Gurion University

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Peter J. Haas is the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair, Department of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University and is the President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East

In late September, and with the encouragement of Bishop Desmond Tutu, the University of Johannesburg in South Africa passed a resolution not exactly boycotting Ben Gurion University, with which it has some cooperative ventures, but setting down certain criteria for continuing its relationship. The two stipulations are, according to a statement released by the Univesity ( ):

1). “… the memorandum of understanding governing the relationship between the two institutions be amended to include Palestinian universities chosen with the direct involvement of UJ,” and

2).“Additionally, UJ will not engage in any activities with BGU that have direct or indirect military implications, this to be monitored by UJ’s senate academic freedom committee.”

Exactly what the second one even means is not clear. The modern university is set up precisely to aid a country’s social and economic development. This also means that universities are at the center of security issues from local law enforcement to national defense. At the same time, any modern military wants a college- or university-trained officer corp. Just to take the United States as an example, the U.S. military has numerous ROTC programs (Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard) on “civilian college” campuses thoughout the country. This means that virtually every major institution of higher learning is connected “directly” with the military, even before we look at research grants and other types of relationships. Thus, to insist that a university in a country not have any contact with the military “direct or indirect” is fantastically absurd. In fact, I wondered if the University of Johannesburg could even itself meet this standard. In fact it could not; the first site I checked indicated that the University of Johannesburg would have to cease all cooperation with its own Telecommunicatins Research Group which specifically says its research has military applications ( ).

But the real absurdity rests in the first point. It first has to be noted that some 8% of all higher education students in Israel are Arab (and often self-described as Palestinian). I doubt that there is a single university in the Arab world that has this high a proportion of Jewish students, for example. Although numbers vary, statistics show that Tel Aviv University reports that about 5% of its students are Arab, The Technion has slightly more than 10%; the Ben Gurion University that UJ so self-righteously targets, works with the Negev Bedouin population. Bedouin, by the way, have been actively participating in the Israeli military since the founding of the state, and so are positioned to be special targets of the UJ initiative,

Of course the first criterion does not say anything about Arab students attending Israeli universities, it demands that BGU “include Palestinian universities chosen with the direct involvement of UJ.” Such cooperation, although not done with the intercession of UJ, has occurred in the past, a fact that is apparently unknown to the University of Johannesburg. Recently, many such universities in the West Bank (let alone Gaza) have themselves severed (or been forced to severe) such ties. Apparently UJ proposes to fix this problem. What remains unsaid, however, is what happens if JU is unsuccessful in its attempts to get Palestinian universities to cooperate with Israeli ones. Is the moral stance of the administration and faculty of the University of Johannesburg then that Ben Gurion University, with its important outreach to the Bedouin community, is to be punished? Is maybe the real issue behind the resolution that Ben Gurion University is working with the “wrong” Arabs?

Peter Haas on The University of South Africa and Ben Gurion University

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Peter J. Haas

Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies

Director, The Samuel Rosenthal Center for Judaic Studies

Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Ohio



  • Modern History of The Middle East



  • Western Religions ( Judaism, Christianiy, Islam and their Interrelationships )


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