It has come to my attention that a motion was proposed and passed by Rhodes University’s Faculty of Humanities that calls on all members of the Rhodes University academic community to support the position that:
“Academics holding Israeli citizenship, as well as official representatives from Israel, in advance of an invitation to visit Rhodes University, be requested to make a statement renouncing the use of lethal military force by the Israeli government against unarmed civilians in Palestine and the Occupied Territories and the forcible displacement of Palestinians from their homes.”
The statement is lengthy and can be found here. My response follows below.
5 August, 2014 To Whom It May Concern: Re: Motion to the Faculty of Humanities concerning the abuse of Human Rights in Palestine and the Occupied Territories This letter concerns the abovementioned motion, which has been adopted by the Humanities Faculty at Rhodes University. The points below outline my objection to the motion:
- While the authors’ empathy for human suffering is laudable, at no point does the motion refer to the ongoing rocket attacks on Israel or the terrorist tunnels built by Hamas from Gaza to Israel. A university should be a space for critical engagement and debate. The one-sided narrative portrayed in the motion shuts down any space for debating the nuances in the current Middle East conflict.
- The motion’s reference to the Constitution of South Africa and the “right to freedom of association and freedom of expression” for its citizens is antithetical to its purpose: to withdraw the freedom of Rhodes students and staff to develop their own informed responses to the current situation.
- The notion of forcing individuals to “make a statement” regarding their views on Israel’s military actions relies on archaic witch-hunt tactics. This idea is short-sighted in several respects. Firstly, Israel is a democracy with an active civil society with wide-ranging political views. Yet, this motion flattens all distinctions by, ostensibly, making the holding of Israeli citizenship a crime to be punished by public purging. Secondly, will all Israeli citizens, including its Arab and Christian academics, be subject to this sweeping proposal, or will the university be selective in who is deemed a “potential enemy” in this regard? Finally, will similar calls be made for Chinese academics, Russian academics, Syrian academics and Iraqi academics in the light of the conflicts in these regions?
- The authors briefly refer to the “negotiation” that led to a peaceful resolution of the South African conflict. Yet their proposition, which ostracises any academic holding an opinion contrary to their own, cuts off the chance of any real conversation happening between and across different parties in this conflict.
Its website indicates that the Faculty of Humanities at Rhodes University offers a liberal arts education and goes on to explain that:
“A liberal arts education provides students with critical reasoning skills, in particular the ability to analyse and evaluate arguments, to probe for hidden assumptions, to organise complex material in coherent ways; with an ability to understand the views of others; the ability to communicate well; a capacity to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty; and an acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance”
As a student of Higher Education, I question how supporters of this motion purport to educate students to reason critically, to weigh up different arguments, to understand other views and to navigate an often ambiguous and uncertain world by defining what ideologies are allowed and demonising those who hold different opinions.
Institutions of higher education have an important part to play in society. As such, Rhodes University is uniquely placed to provide a safe space to stimulate debate around the current Middle East crisis. It can do this by providing forums for different stakeholders to share their views, by nurturing critically thinking students, and promoting tolerance and debate. The adoption by Senate of this motion would signal a dangerous turn away from academic freedom.