Israel boycotts are like a multi-headed Hydra

Protestor holds a sign urging the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel (Jewish News)
Protestor holds a sign urging the boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel (Jewish News)

Initiatives calling for boycotts of Israeli academics or Israeli universities  have not disappeared. They are generally not in public focus in recent years, and have, so far,  caused limited damage to Israeli academia generally.

The initiatives are seething behind the surface and resurface from time to time in unexpected place, and in new forms. Like a multi-headed Hydra, when one head is cut off, two new heads are born. New tactics are employed by the would-be boycotter and the tactics used against them vary according to the challenges. Recent examples will be described below.

The initiatives were soundly defeated in the UK, where they started more than a decade ago. The UK university heads stated, unequivocally and unambiguously, that they support academic freedom and are opposed to academic boycotts. Boycotting individual academics based on their ethnic origin, citizenship or nationality was declared illegitimate by the most senior academic bodies. The efforts of the would be boycotters then moved across the Atlantic to the USA, where they tried to persuade the major professional associations to  boycott Israeli universities.

These efforts at boycotting institutions was initially successful in small to medium associations, but then, since 2014, were defeated in the major ones, the American Anthropological Association, the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association, due mainly  to the deep involvement and major mobilisation of many American organisations and individuals and the unequivocal opposition of the associations of the heads of the American universities, enlisted by the association of the heads of Israeli universities.

The major thrusts having failed, the boycotters rested for a while, but the efforts resurfaced recently, in several places. One of the two stories  which I will focus on involves ENMESH – the European Network For Mental Health Service Evaluation. This network, which has Israeli members, holds biannual conferences. In the last conference ENMESH2019, held in Lisbon in the beginning of June,  the Israeli proposal to host ENMESH2021 in Jerusalem, was approved by the Board . Two weeks later the chair of ENMESH, Prof. Mike Slade of the University of Nottingham, in the UK, wrote all Board members that, after receiving both praise and condemnation of the decision , he decided to cancel the decision of the Board, since the organisation will find it hard to deal with the negative anti-Israeli campaign that will take place if ENMESH2021 is held in Israel.

The fear  of potential anti-Israeli campaigns resulting in a cancellation of a decision to hold the conference in Israel was a first of its kind, and could set a precedent. It made many scientists, in the UK and other European countries,  furious. Top UK scientists, as well as many people from other countries,  wrote letters of protest to all board members. Independently, Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UKLFI -UK Lawyers for Israel,  determinedly fought the discriminatory act, that violated UK laws by treating Israelis differently than they would treat others. Since ENMESH director and several Board members were  UK based, the respective vice-chancellors were also written to. Baroness Deech tabled questions at the House of Lords. The outcome of this incredible coalition of good people, who care for the future of academia, and would not allow extraneous considerations to affect academic decisions, was a replacement of the chair of ENMESH by the Board, and a decision to reconsider the Israeli site for ENMESH2021.

The second story involves APSA – American Political Science Association. The Association supports academic freedom and opposes boycotts , but in one of its sections, Foundations of Political Theory, the leadership wished to introduce a resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions. An Israeli member discovered this ploy, and alerted the Political Science Community in  Israel. The APSA leadership reaffirmed that the bylaws of APSA do not allow votes on such a resolution, and only an informal discussion is allowed. Many American Political Scientists, including members of organizations that have consistently fought against boycotts, believing in the principles of free exchange of ideas and no discrimination, such as  AEN- Academic Engagement Network and SPME- Scholars for Peace in the Middle East are set to join the discussion.

About the Author
Zvi is Prof. Emeritus of Mathematics at Technion. He currently serves as Chair of the Israeli Universities' Forum to Combat Academic Boycotts
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