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S. Africa university to vote on Ben-Gurion boycott

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(JTA) — The faculty Senate of a major South African university is set to vote on whether to sever ties and a joint research project with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. 

The University of Johannesburg Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday in Soweto on the boycott, which has been championed by Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and other prominent South African figures.

An online petition calling on the Johannesburg university to sever academic ties with Ben-Gurion has been signed by 200 prominent South Africans, including government officials and academics.

In an article published Sunday in South Africa’s Sunday Times, Tutu wrote that "Israeli Universities are an intimate part of the Israeli regime, by active choice. While Palestinians are not able to access universities and schools, Israeli universities produce the research, technology, arguments and leaders for maintaining the occupation. BGU is no exception. By maintaining links to both the Israeli defense forces and the arms industry, BGU structurally supports and facilitates the Israeli occupation. For example, BGU offers a fast-tracked program of training to Israeli Air Force pilots."

An agreement between the universities to collaborate on biotechnology and water purification projects was announced last year; several Johannesburg faculty members protested the collaboration. The university appointed a committee to report on the possibility of a boycott and get back to the Senate. The report will be heard Wednesday, after which a vote is expected to be taken. 

Ben-Gurion’s leadership is "deeply disturbed" by the boycott campaign, according to a statement released Monday by the university.

"The joint research project is designed to solve real problems of water contamination in a reservoir near Johannesburg and as such is for the direct benefit of the residents of the region," the statement said. "BGU sees this joint project as an opportunity to make its well-reputed expertise in water research available to improve the welfare of the South African people."

In 1997, then-South African President Nelson Mandela received an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University. In his acceptance speech, Mandela applauded the university’s accomplishments.

"In Ben-Gurion University of the Negev," he said, "we have a center of excellence which represents the best in the traditions of the Jewish people: a sense of mission, internationalism and inventiveness."
 

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