Backlash After Students at South African University Demand Jews De-register

2-12-15 South Africa Israel
Muslims hold posters during a protest against Israel outside the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on October 20, 2004. Juda Ngwenya/Reuters

The Students Representative Council (SRC) and Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) at Durban University of Technology in South Africa has stirred outrage at home and abroad after a local newspaper, the Daily News, reported they had demanded that Jewish students, especially those who "do not support the Palestinian struggle," leave the school.

In a memorandum sent to the university's management Tuesday, the SRC and PYA asked that students who support the state of Israel or are sponsored by the Israeli government de-register.

"As the SRC, we had a meeting and analyzed international politics," Mqondisi Duma, secretary of the group, was quoted as saying in the Daily News report. "We took the decision that Jewish students, especially those who do not support the Palestinian struggle, should de-register."

The move garnered swift and scathing responses from university officials as well as local and international Jewish organizations.

Natan Pollack, the national chairman of the South African Union of Jewish Students, called the request "deplorable." Likewise, Mary Kluk, chairwoman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said she was "appalled" by the demand.

Ahmed Bawa, the vice chancellor of the university, responded to the memorandum—which also raised concerns over financial aid and student accommodations—in a letter to students and staff Wednesday. Bawa called the demand related to Jewish students "outrageous, preposterous and a deep violation of our National Constitution and every human rights principle." He concluded his rapid rejection of the idea by emphasizing that "no student at DUT will be discriminated against on the basis of religion, race, gender, political affiliation or sexual orientation."

South Africa has a progressive constitution created in 1996 after the end of the country's apartheid regime. It emphasizes equality and human rights, including freedom of religion and expression.

In a statement on Facebook, the South African Union of Jewish Students (Western Cape) wrote Thursday:

No student should be targeted for identifying as a Jew or a Zionist, especially because neither of these identities are contradictory to caring about the human rights of Palestinians. We must recognise the striking hypocrisy of groups who disregard the fundamental rights of others in the name of a struggle for national freedom. The demands made by the DUT SRC are indicative of a trend in South African civil society which prioritises Palestinian claims to self-determination and security over those of Jews living in the Middle East, and which sees Zionism as incompatible with the establishment of a Palestinian state and freedom and safety for Palestinians. It also shows a failure to engage with groups like SAUJS WC, who support the establishment of a free Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, whilst ensuring the right of the Jewish people to security, protection, and self-determination.

SAUJS WC calls for increased dialogue between Palestinian rights groups and Zionist organisations, and does not envisage an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict without a commitment by both sides to recognising the humanity of the other. Demanding the de-registration of Jewish students is a striking example of refusal to do this. We remain committed to campaigning for the rights of Jewish and Zionist students to attend university in South Africa in safety and free of ostracism.

The memorandum issued by the SRC and PYA is not the first time people with an Israel affiliation have been on the receiving end of protests at South African institutions of higher education.

Individuals and groups have compared Israel's relationship with Palestine to the segregation and discrimination practiced during the apartheid era and have called for an economic and cultural boycott of the country.

In March 2013, anti-Israel protesters, including members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Wits Student Representative Council and the Muslim Students Association, disrupted a performance by Israeli pianist Yossi Reshef at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg as part of a cultural boycott.

The concert took place during the ninth international Israeli Apartheid Week, a series of events that advocates a "boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] against Israel campaign which is aimed to bring an end to Israel's apartheid policies and violations of international law," according to BDS South Africa's website.

Many of the students who participated were later suspended or sentenced with community service.

On Thursday, a regional Jewish body of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province called the SRC and PYA's memorandum "blatantly anti-Semitic" and addressed South Africa's history of apartheid in its response. The Council of KwaZulu-Natal Jewry wrote:

The singling out of any student for discrimination based solely on their religion, race, gender or political affiliation goes against the values and principles of a democratic South Africa proudly enshrined in our Constitution. It is especially saddening that such a call could be made by youth organizations in our country which has overcome a dark history of racial segregation and oppression and sacrificed much to achieve freedom, equality and human rights for all.

The group commended Bawa "on his swift and strong condemnation of the student formations' demand," and said it would "welcome the opportunity to work with professor Bawa alongside other civil society organizations in their programme of engagement with the SRC and PYA to address the obvious issues of intolerance and lack of social cohesion that have emerged on DUT campus."