UJ was right to cut Israeli ties

THE University of Johannesburg has cut ties with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

The call for termination was based on the grounds of BGU's direct support and collaboration with the Israeli military and occupation of Palestine.

The university had a historic chance to make a stand for principled research and an ethical approach to scientific cooperation - and it did.

But what does this mean within the context of water research and particularly in South Africa, considering the country's water problems?

The memorandum of understanding between the two universities involved a water research project focused on experimenting with algae.

On the face of it, this was seemingly benign, even beneficial, based purely on the drive for scientific progress and the development of sustainable life-giving sources of water and energy.

However, as the academics who had called this agreement into question brought to our attention, this is not simply the case. As they point out: "As academics we acknowledge that all of our scholarly work takes place within larger social contexts - particularly in institutions committed to social transformation.

"South African institutions are under an obligation to revisit relationships forged during the apartheid era with other institutions that turned a blind eye to racial oppression in the name of 'purely scholarly' or 'scientific work'."

A recent report on the UJ-BGU agreement highlighted the ways in which this "purely scientific" agreement was in fact necessarily implicated in a pernicious system of racial oppression and collaboration with a military occupation.

Not only did BGU itself serve to uphold and reinforce the apartheid-like policies of the Israeli state, but the report shows the direct and indirect links by which the water research project itself contributes to human rights abuses.

For example, BGU's water department has close ties and collaborates with the Jewish National Fund.

The fund has played, and continues to play, a key role in the theft of Palestinian land and in reinforcing Israel's segregationist policies.

BGU is also a close partner with the Israeli Water Authority company, Mekorot, which is today one of the main state functionaries responsible for implementing Israel's illegal water policies.

It is well documented that Israeli water policies amount to serious violations of human rights and international law, with Israel having over the last 70 years instituted policies and actions that have led to creating bantustans and resulted in Palestinians losing access to water.

To be sure, water research such as that envisioned in the projects can contribute to our knowledge.

But while projects that may contribute to water purification are important, one still has to address the fundamental questions around access to (and theft of) water from Palestinians by Israel, differential and apartheid-like skewed access to water resources and the forceful denial of access to water.

Some pro-Israel lobbyists have attempted to spin the issue as if South Africa's access to clean water depends on Israeli research.

This is, firstly, a red herring, and, secondly, a racist argument.

As UJ's deputy vice-chancellor Adam Habib has pointed out, ensuring clean water in South Africa has nothing to do with Israeli research and assistance, and has everything to do with the South African government's investment.

"There has been quite a lot of scare-mongering that if the partnership breaks, South Africa will be confined to bad water quality," he said.

"The quality of our water is suffering because we are not spending the type of money on cleaning water that we need to, and not employing skill sets required."

Besides, Israel should be the last country anyone should attempt to learn from with regards to water policy.

Amnesty International, in a damning report, has accused the Israeli government of using discriminatory water policies that deny Palestinians their right to access to water.

The claim by pro-Israel lobbyists that the ending of relations will harm "poor, black, helpless" South Africans is most definitely patronising, but there is a simple response: as long as these so-called benefits remain connected to and implicated in practices of apartheid and racial subjugation, we refuse.

These research projects are not the exclusive preserve of Israeli institutions and the benefits of joint cooperation can be gained from alternative partners (those not associated with a military accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity).

Moreover, we should simply refuse to be complicit - scientific and environmental benefit cannot come at the price of human dignity.

South African universities should not assist in "greenwashing" and putting a pleasant face to such complicity. It is welcoming that UJ has refused to be complicit.

  • Lekalakala is an environmental activist
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