BDS Without Precedent (There Were No Academic Boycotts of South Africa)

south africa

By its detractors, Israel is compared to South Africa, Zionism to Apartheid, in order to justify boycotting, in this particular case, Israeli universities. But two colleagues at Syracuse remind me that there were no academic boycotts against South Africa during the big anti-Apartheid divestment movement of the 1980s. On what basis then should U.S. faculty boycott Israeli universities? It would seem to me that supporters of BDS are trying to push and pull university colleagues into what turns out to be a rash and self-damaging action based on an invidious comparison and for which there is no precedent.

When I went to google “South Africa academic boycott,” the search came up with one mention at a UN committee, and one mention made of a smallish group of British signatories to a 1965 statement. Even that short statement was couched in terms of “protest,” not “boycott.” You can read the short declaration here.  It may have been the case that individual academics were discouraged from going to South Africa to give lectures.  Indeed, Conor Cruise O’Brien was criticized for violating the boycott by giving some lectures at a South African university. But there’s very little else that I can find, and certainly no call for a formal academic boycott. Most of what you find at Google under “South Africa academic boycott” has to do with, yes, Israel, not with South Africa. The lacuna in the digital record suggests that BDS has overdrawn this particular connection to make a weak political point dressed up as a universal human rights issue.

At any rate, the academic boycott of Israel would seem to have little to connect it to the anti-Apartheid struggle as it developed into the 1980s. Academic boycotts of South Africa were considered and duly rejected. About South Africa and opposition to academic boycotts, I’m citing below relevant passages from the AAUP document “On Academic Boycotts,” which you can read here:

“In 1985, the AAUP’s Seventy-first Annual Meeting called on colleges and universities “as investors to oppose apartheid,” to “decline to hold securities in banks which provide loans to the government of South Africa,” and to favor divestiture of holdings in companies that did not adhere to the Sullivan principles. The meeting also urged similar action on the part of public and private pension funds serving higher education faculty. Three years later, the Association’s Seventy-fourth Annual Meeting urged TIAA-CREF to divest itself “of all companies doing business” in South Africa. Although the resolutions did not apply to exchanges among faculty and, in this sense, did not constitute an academic boycott, some argued at the time that the indirect effect of disinvestment would be harmful to university teachers and researchers. Some individuals, publishers (University Microfilms), and organizations (the American Library Association, for example) did engage in an academic boycott, but the AAUP limited its protests against apartheid to resolutions of condemnation and to divestment, because it was considered wiser to keep open lines of communication among scholars in accordance with principles of academic freedom.”

“Though often based on assertions of fundamental principle, boycotts are not in themselves matters of principle but tactical weapons in political struggles…In protesting against apartheid in South Africa, the AAUP carefully distinguished between economic and academic boycotts largely on matters of principle.”




About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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