The Middle East conflict is once again centre stage in South Africa as the University of Johannesburg (UJ) considers breaking its ties with Israel's Ben Gurion University (BGU) over its alleged association with human rights abuses of Palestinians.
The UJ senate debated the issue last Monday and has resolved that it should be considered by a committee, led by UJ deputy vice-chancellor Adam Habib, for the purpose of making recommendations within three months.
The current relationship began last August, with an agreement to co-operate on the issue of water purification and micro-algal bio-technology research. But two months later, academic staff at UJ signed a petition opposing the development.
"The Palestinian people are currently victims of an Israeli occupation, which violates their human rights as well as international law. Their plight has been repeatedly compared with that of black South Africans under apartheid," it said.
Professor Steven Friedman, who led the petitioners' case in the senate, denied that they wanted UJ to support a boycott campaign against Israel. "But we are asking them not to sign agreements with institutions which collaborate with governments that commit human rights violations," he told the weekly Mail and Guardian.
He complained that BGU offered "stipends and partial exemptions from its degree requirements to members of the Israeli military, and tenders for Israeli Defence Force research contracts."
But a BGU spokesperson said that "like all Israeli universities, we offer help and support to all students who miss classes because of army service".
Professor Friedman told the JC that he was leading the charge as he felt that Jews had "an ethical obligation to stand up on the side of people whose rights have been violated, and I think that the rights of the Palestinian people have been violated.
"I'm doing it both out of a moral conviction and out of a sense that it may make a contribution to bringing peace and to ending violence, both of which I think are very important Jewish obligations."
The South African Associates of BGU brought Professor Ilan Troen, BGU's founding dean of humanities and social sciences, from Israel to attend the senate meeting and defend the partnership, along with local advocate David Unterhalter.