15 September 2023 | Story Samkelo Fetile | Photo Supplied
Collaboration - University Logos

The University of the Free State (UFS) is pleased to announce the renewal of its commitment to academic collaboration with the University of Haifa in Israel. This enduring partnership, initiated in 2018, has borne substantial academic achievements, including scientific publications, collaborative projects, and webinars. The decision to reaffirm this collaboration follows a meticulous assessment of Israel's human rights record, regarding academic freedom and political sensitivities.

Academic freedom and South Africa's policy framework

South Africa, guided by its constitution, firmly upholds the principle of academic freedom (Section 16 (1)(d). Within the context of the 2020 'Policy Framework for Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa'(CI.3.5.2), the nation recognizes the autonomy of higher education institutions to forge partnerships abroad. However, it also underscores the importance of evaluating the human rights records and national priorities of potential collaborators.

Acknowledging that the collaboration with Israeli institutions is viewed critically by some South African stakeholders due to concerns surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict and human rights violations, the UFS is committed to striking a balance between academic engagement and social responsibility.

Despite these concerns, the UFS has decided to renew its collaboration with the University of Haifa due to various factors. These factors include the University of Haifa's commitment to the liberal approach, as evidenced by its diverse student body, which comprises 35% minorities like Muslims, Druze, Christians, and Bahai. Additionally, the university actively promotes reconciliation through programmes such as the Jewish-Arab Leadership programme and the 'Minerva Center for the Rule of Law under Extreme Conditions.' Moreover, the University of Haifa demonstrates gender equity without racial bias, exemplified by Professor Mouna Maroun, who became the first Arab woman in Israel to achieve the status of professor of neurobiology and head of a university department in neuroscience, leading its research efforts. Lastly, situated in one of Israel's most integrated cities, the University of Haifa plays a significant role in fostering an inclusive environment through geographical integration.

Academics as conflict resolution catalysts

A pivotal reason behind the UFS's decision to collaborate with the University of Haifa is a shared belief in the role of academics in conflict resolution. Collaborative research conducted by academics under politically charged circumstances can undertake the root causes of disputes and offer solutions through constructive dialogue. This contribution aligns with the concept of "Track II" diplomacy, where informal efforts led by academics can create spaces for overcoming historical conflicts.

The University of Haifa has a track record of contributing to peace efforts, most notably assisting the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Its academics provided insights and recommendations that played a pivotal role in the success of the peace talks.

Furthermore, the University of Haifa's involvement in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs exemplifies its commitment to open and constructive dialogue in addressing global security challenges. Such initiatives foster reconciliation and diplomacy.

In light of their rich history of academic collaboration, respect for academic freedom, and belief in the role of academics as agents of peace, the UFS and the University of Haifa have chosen to renew their 'Framework for Academic Collaboration.' While cognizant of the complexities and sensitivities involved, they are dedicated to continuing their academic partnership with the hope of making a modest contribution towards resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict through the power of education and dialogue.

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