The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s decision to cancel a lecture by a senior official of the Israeli embassy has sparked fierce debate, with widely divergent interpretations around freedom of speech and questions of human rights.
While UKZN received the backing of those who believe it was correct to distance itself from a representative of a “government which perpetuates human rights abuses”, the move has been slammed as a violation of freedom of expression.
Yaakov Finkelstein, deputy ambassador at the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, was due to deliver a lecture at the university on Monday, but deputy-vice chancellor Joseph Ayee was reported to have sent out an email late on Sunday, advising that:
“I have reconsidered the sensitivities that the visit of the Israeli deputy ambassador have generated. Given the negative publicity that the visit will give UKZN, I hereby cancel the visit and the lecture… (the Israeli ambassador will bring) likely reputational damage for the institution (which) is not in the interest of all of us.”
UKZN maintained that while it was committed to a non-racial and democratic society where debate, dialogue and divergent viewpoints were encouraged, in view of sensitivities the decision was taken to cancel the occasion.
The embassy responded by saying it was sorry to learn that “anti-Israeli elements have embarked on a campaign (of) intellectual terror which rejects everything that the academia believes in: meaning dialogue, discussions, research, understanding and freedom of speech”.
According to embassy spokeswoman Hila Stern the banning of the “non-political” talk was due to “bullying”.
“There’s none so deaf as those who will not hear,” said Stern.
But UKZN lecturer Lubna Nadvi countered that no academic institution functioned outside an ethical and legal framework, and that Ayee’s decision to cancel the lecture represented the “general sentiment” among staff and students.
“What Israel is doing to Palestinians is totally unethical and illegal according to international law. Israel has also been declared an apartheid entity,” she said.
“Hence, if a university or any group hosts a representative of the apartheid state of Israel, it is basically complicit in the illegal activities of this state.”
Nadvi added that universities could take “morally correct positions” or “compromise themselves” by aligning with bodies considered unethical by other members of the international community.
Steven Friedman, director of the centres for the study of democracy at both Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, argued that UKZN’s decision did not violate the right to freedom of speech.
Friedman argued that Finkelstein was neither an academic, nor a journalist, but an “official representative of a government which perpetuates human rights abuses.”
However, Professor Anton Harber, chairman of the board of the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), said the institute was concerned that someone was prohibited from speaking on a campus for the reasons offered by UKZN.
“(The FXI) believes strongly that universities should be places of open debate and discussion, allowing for a free flow of ideas – even ideas some may disagree with. In fact, especially ideas and views which are controversial and contested. We are aware that Israeli-Palestinian issues can be sensitive and conflictual and that universities may need to manage such situations with care... We hope the university will ensure that it works to ensure its campus is a place of free, open and fair debate where issues are fully canvassed and voices are not silenced,” Harber stated.
David Simpson of the Council of KZN Jewry said that the incident was indicative of growing anti-Israeli sentiment in South Africa.
“This kind of action is regrettable. Universities should be a place of uninhibited discourse. Advancing (certain) political ideologies and ideals is regrettable. They should be stimulating robust debate instead.”
Eugene Grobler, Finkelstein’s counterpart at the South African embassy in Tel Aviv ,said he was unaware of the furore and could not comment.
International Relations Department spokesman Clayson Monyela said that the stance taken by a “private” institution did not reflect the views of the South African government, which had a strong cordial bilateral relationship with Israel.
UKZN’s executive director of corporate relations, Nomonde Mbadi, said that in consultation with its academics and the ambassador’s office, it hoped to host the lecture “in a collegial environment in the near future”.