With the spread of globalization, many distinguishing characteristics of different geographical locations and authentic culture seem to have lost their uniqueness. Language has become uniform and regional accents less pronounced. Shopping malls everywhere begin to look and feel the same. For example, the spacious kosher food section at Pick ‘n Pay in Johannesburg could easily be confused with that of Ralph’s in La Jolla Village, California, except that Ralph’s features kosher sushi, while Pick ‘n Pay offers kosher boerevors sausage. The population of greater Johannesburg, which is not densely settled, is approaching 4,000,000. The urban landscape boasts the largest man-made forest in the world consisting of about a ten million trees, many of which were first planted at the end of the nineteenth century. It is now fall in the Southern Hemisphere, and the leaves are changing color, which is dramatic and beautiful. Here, the coldest holiday of the year, Shavuot, is soon approaching. Despite the regime change which brought the African National Congress (ANC) to power in 1994 and the recent world economic crisis, one has the impression that over the years this country has been prudently managed and succeeded in accumulating solid wealth, like Sweden or Switzerland.
This is an industrious society, but in some important respects it deviates from the rest of the world. For the uninitiated, the main characteristic which distinguishes Johannesburg (and South Africa) is the great divide along racial lines between the haves and have-nots. Beggars at nearly every intersection and outside of restaurants constantly remind the middle class of this reality. Also, there is an extremely high rate of violent crime. The middle class and the wealthy live mostly in private homes behind thick, high walls, many with electric fences. Streets are gated off and independent security firms are kept fully employed. Those who have jobs are fortunate, because there is not enough unskilled work to go around, despite policies which favor redundant employment. We are assured, nevertheless, that the situation is much better than the bad days of the real apartheid.
Another aspect makes Johannesburg somewhat special. According to the Reut Institute of Tel Aviv, Johannesburg is one of several hubs of a global network whose purpose is to bring about the delegitimization of Israel. Other such hubs are: London, the San Francisco Bay Area, Madrid, Paris, Toronto, and Brussels. It is noteworthy that on 10 May 1994, Yasir Arafat felt so much at ease in Johannesburg that he delivered a speech in one of its mosques, where he openly declared that he joined the peace process in bad faith, and that as soon as the power relationship became more favorable for the Palestinian cause, he would seize the opportunity to wage war against Israel. More recently, on 28 September 2010, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) conferred an honorary doctoral degree upon former Constitutional Court Judge Richard Goldstone “in recognition of the remarkable contributions (he) made to intellectual and public life.” The University’s statement added, “UJ honours Richard Goldstone with an honorary doctorate because he represents the university’s vision of advancing freedom, democracy, equality and human dignity as high ideals of humanity.”
Elli Kriel, a lecturer of the Department of Sociology at UJ, reported that “on 23 March 2011 the Senate of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) ended its formal association with Israel’s Ben Gurion University (BGU). The decision of the Senate followed a concerted effort by the UJ Petition Committee in close alliance with the South African BDS office.” Nevertheless, a good representation of faculty members, notably from the exact sciences, opposed the boycott. After the decision was taken, adverse publicity ensued, and the University now claims that there really is no boycott but rather a downgrading of relations. While it became university policy to abandon cooperative research efforts between institutions on the official level, it would still be possible (through the back door) for faculty members to collaborate as individuals on scientific projects. With regard to the cultural environment, a visitor to UJ would not miss the announcement of a full day conference (May 15) with international guests devoted to the subject of Islam, Gender and Law. Could one say that say that certain groups are endeavoring to stake out religious, cultural, and political space? This is an open question, the answer to which would depend on the context.
It was against this background that a small group of UJ faculty members, under the leadership of Elli Kriel and David Bilchitz of the Law Faculty, decided to convene a seminar examining the question whether boycotting could be justified. It should be added that in her efforts to find a suitable location for a seminar session on the subject, Kriel experienced real push-back. This might be explained perhaps by the fact that within the South African tradition boycotting is looked upon favorably, because this weapon helped bring about the collapse of the apartheid regime. At the same time, there may have been some feeling among the faculty – even among those who originally opposed the boycott — that the issue should not be reopened.
SPME helped the faculty members opposing the boycott to formulate their positions and made its extensive experience available to them. In this endeavor, Dr. Joel Fishman and President Emeritus, Ed Beck, worked together closely. Ultimately, the cooperative efforts of UJ faculty members and SPME helped bring about a favorable outcome. In the debate, David Hirsh of Goldsmith College, University of London, founder of the Engage initiative, and Joel Fishman, Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and representing SPME, made the case against the boycott. In favor of the boycott were Na’eem Jeenah of the Afro-Middle East Center and Ran Greenstein of the Department of Sociology of the University of Witwatersrand. Prof. Thaddeus Metz, Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at UJ, was an able moderator. Of the arguments which were raised against the boycott, David Hirsh drew upon the discourse in England where antisemitism is discussed openly and frontally. Fishman articulated SPME position that “the world academic community frowns upon academic boycotts which it regards as an offense against academic freedom. Whatever their feelings, academics cannot say they support academic freedom and exchange if they boycott, censor or otherwise interrupt the exchange of ideas, research and information.” He also added that “support for the boycott movement deprives South Africans of the opportunity to play a truly constructive role in advancing the cause of reconciliation and peace.”
The defenders of the boycott tried to argue that Israel is a criminal state and should therefore be isolated. This is a well-worn message which derives from Article 425 of the Durban NGO Declaration, formulated in 2001 at the United Nations Conference Against Racism, calling for the “complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state … the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel.” The present BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement adopted the content of Article 425 as its guiding idea. Durban, it should be recalled, was the scene of probably the biggest (and most revolting) public demonstration of anti-Jewish feeling since the thirties. This is part of the political culture of today’s South Africa and its legacy. Any discussion of current affairs in this country must raise the question: what kind of government would provide the venue for a major international conference whose main purpose was incitement to acts of discrimination and hatred?
The seminar held at UJ was a success in its own right. The discourse was civil, and each side could present and defend its views in the free market of ideas. The audience listened with deep interest, although some faculty members were chilly and hostile. In the author’s opinion, Hirsh and Fishman introduced convincing factual arguments which put the other side at a clear disadvantage. Several days later, the SA Jewish Report reported the event extensively, thus bringing the problem to the attention of the wider community and general public. Holding the seminar may not reverse the vote of the UJ senate, but it is important that the advocates of academic freedom hold more such events so that the cumulative effects of these efforts may bring about a shift in public opinion.
Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Member, SPME Board of Directors,
Book Review Editor, SPME Faculty Forum
 Building a Political Firewall Against Israel’s Delegitimization Conceptual Framework
Version A, November 2010,http://www.reut-institute.org/data/uploads/PDFver/20101219%20London%20Case%20Study.pdf.
 Daniel Pipes, “[Al-Hudaybiya and] Lessons from the Prophet Muhammad’s Diplomacy,”
Middle East Quarterly, September 1999, http://www.danielpipes.org/316/al-hudaybiya-and-lessons-from-the-prophet-muhammads.
 “Goldstone gets honorary doctorate,” http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/Goldstone-gets-honorary-doctorate-20100928. See also, Larry Cohler-Esses, Gal Beckerman and Claudia Braude, “Did a Private Meeting Prompt Goldstone To Change His Mind?” Forward, 15 April 2011,http://www.forward.com/articles/136818/#ixzz1Nijim6uO.
 As quoted by, Gerald Steinberg, “NGO Forum at Durban Conference 2001,” http://www.ngo-monitor.org/article/ngo_forum_at_durban_conference_.