Picture: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman

Cape Town - Seven academics from three Israeli universities have had their invitations to attend a conference at the University of Stellenbosch withdrawn.

The aim of the conference themed 'Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation: The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma' is to deepen understanding of trans-generational trauma and to develop strategies to deal with the repercussions of genocide and colonial oppression.

Earlier this week, eighteen solidarity groups called on the conference's organisers, speakers, participants and sponsors to withdraw Israeli participation.

"When it was learned that Israeli academics, as well as Palestinian academic and peace activist Prof Mohammed Dajani, were scheduled to speak on the programme, the organisers were subjected to mounting pressure, including threats to disrupt the event, from BDS-aligned boycott factions. Instead of taking a firm stand against this bullying tactic, the organisers of the conference caved in by unilaterally cancelling the sessions at which the Israeli academics Prof Mohammed Dajani had been scheduled to speak," said the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) in a statement. SAJBD added that the organisers should have stood firm and not 'surrender to intimidation. 

"It has since been confirmed that the decision to exclude them was taken without their knowledge and that they were only informed about it after the fact." 

The Jewish board said that according to the coordinator of the conference, Prof Pumla Goboda-Madikizela, the reason for the withdrawal was because when Prof Dajani visited South Africa earlier this year, his visit was reported in these terms: "Dajani is visiting South Africa this week as part of his mission of moderation – during Israel Apartheid Week when feelings against Israel are running high – as a guest of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies”. 

Gobodo-Madikizela confirmed that all seven academics from three Israeli institutions had “rescinded their participation” in the conference.

Advocate Thuli Madonsela, Chair in Social Justice at the Stellenbosch University Law Faculty said, “ I believe the call for withdrawal of the Israeli-Palestinian academics is misplaced for several reasons. The first is this is a conference on reparations and reconciliation and thus could have a positive influence on the Palestinian Challenge. The second is that when there was a boycott on South Africa, that did not include its academics participating in peace and justice discussions. The third is that we don’t even know the views of the academics concerned and such views could provide insights into the impasse while providing opportunities to engage with a view to positively influencing change."

Critics of the academic boycott claim that it threatens academic freedom while pro-Palestine groups argue that academic freedom does not take automatic precedence over human rights.

The four-day conference starts on December 5 and features several prominent academics and activists, including Achille Mbembe, Homi Bhabha, Albie Sachs, Zackie Achmat, and Lindiwe Hani.