JOHANNESBURG – A leading South African university is severing ties with Israel's Ben-Gurion University, acting on calls from hundreds of South African academics and intellectuals for an academic boycott.
It's a "landmark moment," the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions said Thursday, praising the University of Johannesburg for being first to sever such ties in a growing campaign to isolate Israel for its attacks on Palestinians in Gaza.
The University of Johannesburg will end the 25-year relationship on April 1, but professors can continue to work individually with Ben-Gurion, Vice Chancellor Adam Habib said.
More than 400 South Africans signed a petition calling for the boycott, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The campaign has resonance coming from a country where activists encouraged international boycotts and sanctions to help end the legalized race discrimination that was apartheid.
Habib said the university's senate committee discussed the issue for two hours on Wednesday then had a secret vote. Sixty percent voted to sever ties, outvoting the remainder who wanted relations with both Israeli and Palestinian universities.
"This is not a boycott of Ben-Gurion," said UJ's executive director for advancement, Kerry Swift. "The formal relationship between the institutions is in a sense an obstacle, and the feeling is that we would encourage relationships on an individual basis."
In Israel, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev said it regretted the decision.
"The only losers in this decision are the people of South Africa," Ben-Gurion president Rivka Carmi said.
Student association leader Uri Keidar wrote a letter to the South African university saying, "I find it difficult to believe that BGU, the home of 20,000 freethinking students of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, is under this brutal attack."
Alana Baranov of South Africa's Board of Jewish Deputies said South Africans "should be serving to provide a tolerant and respectful place where complex problems can be resolved and we can share resources.
"Academic boycotts are anti-freedom of speech and anti-academic," she said.
Baranov said the joint research had been done to improve the lives of average South Africans.
The two universities had joint research projects and academic exchanges on biotechnology and water purification, Habib said.
Those fighting to end cooperation have argued that Ben-Gurion has ties to the Israeli Defense Force and is complicit in their oppression of Palestinians.
"Israeli universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice," Tutu wrote in a recent essay. "While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation."
Cooperation between Ben-Gurion University and the former Rand Afrikaans University, which was a whites-only university under South Africa's apartheid system, began in 1987. The University of Johannesburg, created in 2005, took over various campuses including Rand Afrikaans as part of efforts to give all South Africans access to higher education.
Israel officially opposed apartheid, but its ties with South Africa's former white government were seen as close. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was among the guests at Nelson Mandela's 1994 inauguration as South Africa's first democratically elected president.
The post-apartheid government is a sharp critic of Israel's Palestinian policies.
South Africa has an influential Jewish population, including many who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Helen Suzman won international acclaim for being one of the few white lawmakers to fight against government repression of blacks and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. Anti-apartheid activist Harry Schwarz, South Africa's ambassador to the U.S. during the country's transition from apartheid, played a key role in the country's transition to democracy.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report from Jerusalem.