Controversy swirls around Stellenbosch Conference

This week controversy erupted around the involvement of Israeli academics in a conference on historical trauma hosted by the University of Stellenbosch. File Picture.

This week controversy erupted in South Africa and internationally around the involvement of Israeli academics in a conference on historical trauma hosted by the University of Stellenbosch, organised by the well respected academic and author Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. By the end of the week the New York Times was even asking questions of the conference’s funders – the Mellon Foundation, and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation – as the debate raged following a statement put out by the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) in South Africa.

The conference which is to be held next week from December 5-9th at Stellenbosch University, is to interrogate a critical subject entitled, “Recognition, Reparations, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma,” and will focus on trans-generational trauma and the issue of dealing with the repercussions of genocide, colonial oppression, and mass violence.

While the PSC statement did not call for a boycott of the conference itself, as it acknowledged the conference would discuss an important subject, the objection was to the inclusion of six Israeli academics, given “the role that Israeli academic institutions play in planning, executing, justifying and whitewashing the Israeli state’s abuse of Palestinian human rights, numerous violations of international law and even war crimes,” Roshan Dadoo of the PSC had said.

Dadoo said the PSC had also taken issue with the fact that only one Palestinian academic, Mohammed Dajani from Al-Quds University, had been invited whom the PSC did not perceive as being representative of Palestinian views. The PSC had also taken issue with the title of one of the panels in the conference which it believes suggested symmetry in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being a conflict between two equal sides,which it believes does not represent the reality.

The view of the Conference organisers, however, was that none of the Israeli academics were representative of the position of the State of Israel, and were actually involved in the disruption of the Israeli narrative, encouraging young people to challenge the status quo. One of the Israeli academics is involved in speaking truth to power through film, and has spoken about the role of film in confronting silence about the actions of Israeli soldiers against Palestinians. For that she was vilified by the Israeli Minister of Culture.

The Conference Chair Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela had defended her decision to invite the Israeli academics in a letter written to Roshan Dadoo and the PSC, acknowledging at the end of the letter than the conditions Palestinians are living under are worse than those under apartheid South Africa. But after a week of pressure the Israeli academics were removed from the program.

Senior Israeli academics also entered the fray, with the Rector of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Professor Barak Medina, writing to the Rector of Stellenbosch University, Professor Wim de Williers, to express his concern that “the conference organisers have succumbed to political pressure directed against all Israeli academics, violating basic academic freedom and debate. We find this entirely unacceptable and uncollegial,” de Williers said.

On the other hand, Professor Yuval Shany of Hebrew University, however, allegedly asked the sponsors of the conference to disassociate themselves from the conference. Shany is the Chair in International Law and former Dean of the Law Faculty of Hebrew University and also Chair of the UN Human Rights Committee.

Advocate Thuli Madonsela, Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University Law Faculty, believes that the call for the withdrawal of the Israeli-Palestinian academics is misplaced. One of the participants who will attend next week’s conference, Hillary Hamburger, has said “ The Israelis who were scheduled to come to the conference would have been thoughtful people who could have told the truth of what goes on there. I believe that this kind of exchange between progressive people supports the struggle.”

The controversy surrounding this issue is unlikely to die down anytime soon as proponents on both sides of the issue will continue to raise their voices as the conference date approaches.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for Voices360.