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 eleven Palestinian Solidarity Groups including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and South African Jews for a Free Palestine, among others.

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 statement of the solidarity groups 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.

The Palestinian solidarity groups had also taken issue with the fact that only one Palestinian academic, Mohammed Dajani from Al-Quds University, had been invited who is not perceived as being representative of Palestinian views. Dajani visited South Africa in 2016 as a guest of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies as a counter to the annual global Palestine solidarity event, "Israeli Apartheid Week." The Palestine Solidarity groups believe that Dajani is promoted by the pro-Israel lobby to posit a so-called 'moderate' Palestinian line.

The Palestine Solidarity Groups 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.

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.

The Israeli academics ultimately withdrew from the conference. According to a statement issued by Stellenbosch University, "At no point did the conference organizers or Stellenbosch University request or suggest that any speaker should withdraw from the event...Israeli delegates decided to withdraw their participation as a result of circumstances beyond the control of the University and the conference organising 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 Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.