Israeli Academics Report Signs of Undeclared Boycott Targeting Them

Fewer invitations, more articles rejected by leading journals, foot-dragging on recommendations - and university leaders fear it may get worse.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A BDS stand at the University of California Berkeley, January 2015.
A BDS stand at the University of California Berkeley, January 2015. Credit: Noam Eshel
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Israeli university leaders say they are concerned about growing signs of an unofficial boycott of the country’s academics by their peers abroad.

These signs include turning down invitations to attend conferences held in Israel, ignoring requests to write recommendation letters for Israeli scholars seeking promotions, and rejecting submissions from Israeli scholars in peer-reviewed journals. Hostility toward Israel is not typically cited as the reason, but Israeli university leaders say the growing incidence of such cases has them worried.

Speaking with Haaretz, the heads of leading Israeli academic institutions said the phenomenon was hardly widespread, but considering that it was almost nonexistent until a few years ago, they were following developments closely while considering how to respond.

This “latent boycott,” as it is described by Israeli academics, joins the official, out-in-the-open boycott that has been declared by large academic organizations and student unions in the United States and Europe in recent years.

“This is a slippery slope,” warns Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion science and technology institute and chairman of the Association of University Heads.

“We can find ourselves in 10 years cut off from the academic world, but the impact is not just on the academic world. It’s on the economy, and it’s on high-tech, and somebody needs to sit down and decide what we should do.”

Menachem Ben-Sasson, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, notes that university departments typically send recommendation requests to seven or eight scholars abroad when a faculty member is up for promotion, hoping to receive at least five responses.

“Usually this process takes six months to eight months, but since last summer we’ve had a few files, no more than 10 probably, that took more time than the usual amount of time,” he says. “So we ended up having to send out more requests than usual — 12 to 15 — until we got responses. That to me was a hint, and together with the no-shows at conferences, I was worried.”

Delays hurt

A similar pattern has been seen with submissions to academic journals, notes Zvi Ziegler, a retired Technion mathematics professor who heads a new interuniversity forum to combat the academic boycott.

“This is not a widespread phenomenon, but we have heard cases of Israeli professors sending papers to be refereed, which instead of getting responses during the normal span of time are put at the bottom of the pile,” he says.

“Sometimes this kind of procedural semi-boycott is harmful, since some research has a time value to it, and it becomes old news if it is published with big delays. There are also some people who say they’re not interested in refereeing papers. It sometimes is accompanied by a note that says we don’t like Israel, but those are very few cases, and when it happens, we fight it.”

Since last fall, Ziegler says, there have been few if any reports of academics turning down invitations to Israeli conferences, leading him to believe the trend was prompted mainly by security concerns following last summer’s Gaza war.

Last week, the Association of University Heads met with President Reuven Rivlin to express its concerns about the repercussions on Israeli academia of mounting international calls to boycott the country.

Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, says her institution’s accumulation of complaints by faculty members cannot be dismissed as a coincidence.

“There’s nothing written on paper, but one tells you that he used to be invited to plenaries and keynotes, and all of a sudden he’s not. Another one tells you he can’t get his articles and papers accepted into leading journals anymore even though it’s good stuff,” she says.

“Others tell me they have a hard time getting people to write letters of recommendation. They’re not told that it’s because of the boycott. Rather, they’re told that there’s no time or that they’re not well-versed in the subject. All sorts of excuses like that, so you really don’t know. But it’s happening more and more.”

Social sciences and the humanities

Carmi fears the situation will only get worse. “Can we definitely say this is BDS?” she asks, referring to the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

“No. But to look at it and say these are esoteric cases, that this is just episodic, that’s like having someone spit on you and saying it’s rain. I for one am absolutely positive that there is an academic boycott and that this academic boycott is going to be more and more severe. Whoever says that this is not true and that we are overreacting and hysterical is simply living in denial.”

According to Carmi, the first signs of this unofficial boycott began two to three years ago. To her, the unwillingness of some international scholars to write recommendation letters for their Israeli colleagues is particularly upsetting.

“We in academia live on letters of recommendation,” she says. “They’re essential for promotions, for tenure, for journal submissions. Our world is all about peer evaluation. If we don’t have peers, then we are doomed.”

The university leaders all note that the unofficial boycott is being felt chiefly, if not exclusively, in the social sciences and humanities. Lavie says he is unaware of any signs of it at the Technion.

According to Ben-Sasson, neither have any complaints been heard from Israeli graduate students, who continue to receive research positions abroad that come with considerable funding.

Despite these new signs of an undeclared boycott, he notes, other international developments would seem to prove just the opposite.

“On the positive side of things, for the first time ever this year, Israeli scientists were the top recipients worldwide of European Research Council grants,” Ben-Sasson says. “And that’s after coming in second and third place in recent years.”

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