Who’s afraid of academic boycotts?

South Africa’s Wits University likes to vaunt its anti-apartheid credentials. So why is it cozy with Israel and Zionism?

Palestine Solidarity vigil held in October 2023 near the Wits Health Sciences Campus in Parktown, Johannesburg. Credit Gulshan Khan © 2023.

On January 11, 2024, South Africa filed a case against Israel asserting that the latter had engaged in genocide in Gaza violating the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which both countries are party. This charge encompasses a range of actions, including the indiscriminate killing of Palestinians, especially children, the destruction of residential buildings, forced expulsion, and the enforcing of blockades that restrict access to essential services. The seriousness and urgency of the case prompted South Africa to request that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) initiate “provisional measures,” seeking the court’s intervention before the main proceedings begin in order to immediately curtail what South Africa deems to be a persistent affront to Palestinian rights.

On Friday, January 12, Zane Dangor, the director-general of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), was seen sporting his Wits University jacket while interviewed outside the ICJ. Dangor is an alumnus of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and played a crucial role in coordinating South Africa’s submission and case presentation. Professor John Dugard, who was one of the advocates arguing South Africa’s case, founded the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University in 1978, which aims “to encourage law reform and improve access to justice during apartheid.” There are Wits minds behind our case at the ICJ, and the University’s silence and failure to take a stance on the case is glaring. 

It is imperative to examine the position of Wits University, which has, on a number of occasions, revealed its connections to Israel. Wits prides itself on being a progressive institution at the forefront of social change, but it acts in a contrary manner regarding Palestinian liberation.

On numerous occasions, student groups on campus like the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) have requested that the University disclose its relationships with apartheid Israel and other Zionist entities. The University has responded by saying that they do not have any formal agreements with Israeli universities or companies. However, to what extent is this true, and is the University complicit in normalizing ties to apartheid Israel and furthering its Zionist agenda?

Ties to the Israeli embassy and Zionist Federation

On January 4, 2024, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) shared a post on its Facebook page with the headline “OrCam MyEye: Israeli Tech Opens New Horizons at Wits University.” The post explained that the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, which the South African Parliament voted to shut down in November, donated the OrCam MyEye device, valued at R80,000, to Wits University. The Federation viewed this as “a shining example of SA-Israel collaboration.” The post was accompanied by photos of Wits’ dean of student affairs, Jerome September, receiving the device from Israeli Ambassador Eli Belotserkovsky. 

Upon further investigation of this most recent incident, an article in the South African Jewish Report clarified that Wits’ acceptance of the Israeli embassy and SAZF’s donation was held in July 2023, and that it was intended for the Wits Disability Rights Unit (DRU). Neither Wits nor DRU has publicly disclosed the acceptance of this donation. The following is an extract from the article in the South African Jewish Report:

Israeli Ambassador Eli Belotsercovsky said Israel had a strong connection with Wits because the mother of President Isaac Herzog, the late Ora Herzog, had studied mathematics at the university. “We’re so happy this device will help students, and we look forward to strengthening our relationship with Wits,” he said.

The OrCam MyEye device is intended to aid the visually impaired. There is a dark irony to this considering the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) deliberate and consistent practice of shooting Palestinians in their eyes with sponge-tipped bullets to maim and disable them. These accounts have been published by human rights groups, including the Israeli organization B’Tselem, and publications like Haaretz. In the past three months alone Israel has injured more than 57,296 Palestinians in Gaza and more than 3,800 in the West Bank. Among the injured are civilians who are paralyzed, are amputated, or have lost their limbs in airstrikes. A prominent Afro-Palestinian disability rights activist, Bader Mosleh, was also killed by the violent and ableist Israeli state. In light of this systematic and targeted onslaught, a donation in the name of disability rights is disingenuous. It is, in fact, a brazen attempt to manage Israel’s image and deepen its connections to powerful institutions.

Facilitating the spread of Zionist propaganda

Wits University’s facilitation of the spread of Zionist propaganda is most apparent during Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), an annual international event raising awareness of the Palestinian struggle for liberation and its links to other forms of oppression. Every year, the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) at Wits hosts a counter-event, and every year, the University grants them a more visible platform. SAUJS is a student organization that purportedly caters to Jewish students but is primarily a Zionist organization that does not accommodate anti-Zionist Jews. Its Wits chapter even has a designated “Zionist officer” on its executive team. During IAW, SAUJS is placed outside the Chamber of Mines building, alongside the AMIC deck, an area with heavy foot traffic, while the PSC is given the FNB walkway on West Campus, an area with much less visibility. The University also increases the presence of private security on campus during this time. Accommodating and amplifying a counter-event to IAW—a scheduled international event called for by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee—is a deliberate attack on Palestine solidarity efforts. It thwarts Palestinians’ fight against settler-colonialism and occupation by encouraging a “both-sides” model. 

In 2019, SAUJS went as far as to host Ashager Araro, a reserve soldier for the IDF, on campus grounds. The University, which claimed it was unaware of Araro’s military occupation, eventually had her escorted off campus. Jabu Mashinini, senior program advisor for student governance, said that the University has no policy preventing the presence of military personnel on campus, therefore exempting SAUJS of any repercussions. In fact, in that very same year, under the vice-chancellorship of Adam Habib, the University awarded SAUJS the Best Society Award.

Censoring and intimidating pro-Palestine students

Wits University has a track record of censoring and intimidating pro-Palestine students, including members of the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee. One of the most recent examples of censorship is the attempt by the University to control what is shared on class WhatsApp groups and students’ personal social media accounts.

In October 2023, when Israel began its deliberate attacks on hospitals, ambulances, and healthcare workers, many health sciences students at Wits voiced their condemnation on their personal social media pages and on class WhatsApp groups, which, in the past, were held as spaces for discussion. Third- and fourth-year medical students received two emails from their course coordinator explaining that students were not complying with the faculty’s social media policy and that failure to act appropriately would lead to repercussions. Neither of these emails cited a specific violation of the social media policy. Certain students were also asked to attend private meetings regarding this policy.

Additionally, the 2023 third-year medical class WhatsApp group was temporarily switched to “admins only,” preventing anyone besides the class representatives from contributing. Students were told that this decision came from Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi’s office and was based on some students feeling “unsafe and uncomfortable” due to content highlighting Israel’s attacks on health care.

Employing a member of a pro-Israeli organization and a former Israeli pilot

In August 2023, Professor Vered Aharonson was inaugurated at the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at Wits University. The dean of the Faculty, Professor Thokozani Majozi, publicly confirmed Professor Aharonson’s qualifications, obtained from Israeli academic institutions including Tel Aviv University, as well as her positions as a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and Afeka College. In her inaugural lecture, Professor Aharonson briefly mentioned her “military service.” What the dean did not acknowledge in his introduction is that Professor Aharonson is a former officer for the IDF and pilot for Aviation Bridge, a private Israeli flight operator. In 2011, she and her copilot were detained for a month in Asmara, Eritrea, for arms smuggling, as a package that they were flying into Eritrea contained parts for Kalashnikov rifles

Since Israel’s assault on Gaza, one of the most public and fervent supporters of Israel in South Africa has been Professor Karen Milner, an associate professor in psychology at Wits University and the national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). Professor Milner has a track record of spreading disinformation in favor of the apartheid state. On SABC News she compared Hamas to ISIS, proclaimed that Gaza and Israel had been “operating quite effectively, quite peacefully” until October 7, and even went as far as to justify Israel’s genocidal intent by claiming that when one says Israel “shouldn’t take every means at their disposal to get those hostages back, and you do that against the only Jewish state, it does begin to feel like it’s anti-Semitic.” Her statements ignore Israel’s 17-year blockade on the Gaza Strip and its 75-year occupation of Palestine. Unsurprisingly, when South Africa took Israel to the ICJ for the crime of genocide, Professor Milner wrote that this “can only be interpreted as anti-Semitic.” In line with Israeli hasbara, her statements weaponize anti-Semitism—a legitimate concern in the light of right-wing fervor around the world—against a just cause. 

Both Professor Aharonson and Professor Milner are reflections of the University. Employing a former member of a military organization that, as South Africa’s legal team indicated at The Hague, is committing genocide and other war crimes and an academic who believes Israel is justified in its assault on Gaza is simply immoral. We recall South Africa’s submission to the ICJ, which states that “no armed attack on a State’s territory no matter how serious—even an attack involving atrocity crimes—can, however, provide any possible justification for, or defense to, breaches of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

Hiring the services of an Israeli company outside the official vendors list

In May 2021, the PSC was notified by a French magazine, The Funambulist, that an Israeli subscription agency, Teldan Information Systems, purchased a subscription order of 200 euros on behalf of Wits University. An invoice billed to Teldan describes the University as a party to the subscription, with the relevant online access information listed together with an email address belonging to the cataloging and metadata services librarian at the University. Teldan is not listed among the official vendors employed by the University, as was confirmed by the University’s communications manager, Shirona Patel. The PSC made inquiries to various university functionaries, requesting clarity on the nature and extent of the University’s relationship with Teldan. Unfortunately, no respondents were aware of any relationship.

Academic collaboration with Israeli institutions

In an article published by Africa Is a Country, Dr. Savo Heleta explained that “UCT and Wits have produced more co-authored scholarly publications with institutions from apartheid Israel than any African country over the past decade.” Dr Heleta points out that “these same institutions are geographically located on the African continent and like to claim to be the ‘gateway to the continent’ (in the case of UCT), or speak about the importance of collaboration with the African continent (in the case of Wits).” Dr Heleta concludes with a demand for higher education institutions to honor the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) just as the international community boycotted apartheid South Africa’s universities. 

Collaboration with the settler-colonial and genocidal state of Israel and its affiliates by a South African public university cannot be tolerated. Even before considering our country’s foreign policy and its most recent presentation at the ICJ, a moral stance against the perpetrators of genocide and ongoing apartheid is imperative. Instead of marketing our country’s history and using the images of its progressive alumni to its commercial benefit, the University of the Witwatersrand needs to honor its commitment to social justice and adopt an academic boycott of Israel—one of the tactics that, it knows very well, brought apartheid South Africa to its knees.

Further Reading

Rushing to boycott

The cultural boycott of Russia turns to the flawed precedent of apartheid South Africa for inspiration, while ignoring the much more carefully considered boycott of official Israeli culture by the BDS Movement.