After Outcry, European Academic Group Reconsiders Plan to Cancel Conference in Israel

The decision to change the venue was prompted by fears of backlash from the international boycott movement

A view of Jerusalem, where ENMESH hopes to hold their 2021 biennial conference.
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Following an international outcry, a European association of mental health researchers says it will reconsider an earlier decision to cancel a planned conference in Israel.

In a statement issued this week, the European Network for Mental Health Service Evaluation (ENMESH) announced that it would continue discussions with local organizers “to see if we can proceed to host the ENMESH conference in Israel.”

The decision to change the conference venue, as first reported in Haaretz, was prompted by fears of backlash from the international boycott movement against Israel. It would have been the first time that an academic association had backtracked after the decision had already been made to hold a conference in Israel.

The decision not to hold the conference in Israel was made unilaterally by Mike Slade, a professor of mental health recovery and social inclusion at the University of Nottingham who served as chairman of the ENMESH executive committee.

In its statement, ENMESH announced that Slade would be stepping down and be replaced by Bernd Puschner, a professor of psychiatry at Ulm University in Germany. Puschner had served as secretary of the executive committee, but quit in protest of Slade's decision.

In its statement, the association said: “The deliberations around whether the ENMESH conference should or should not be held in Israel were never intended as an academic boycott of any kind, nor should they be perceived as such. ENMESH has been sincere throughout in expressing its wish to host a conference in Israel. We were only ever concerned by practical considerations, given the very limited ability of an unfunded and informal academic network to manage the potential campaigning that such an event might attract.”

ENMESH, which has 400 members, decided at its last biennial conference, which was held in early June in Lisbon, that its next gathering, scheduled for summer 2021, would take place in Jerusalem. The official announcement was made on the closing day of the three-day conference. Slade notified executive committee members of his decision not to hold the conference in Jerusalem two weeks later.

Sylvia Tessler-Lozowick, chairwoman of the Israel Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, which has many members active in ENMESH, said she was hopeful an agreement could be finalized on hosting the next conference in Jerusalem, as originally planned. “There is a lot of goodwill,” she told Haaretz.

The decision to change the venue prompted a hailstorm of protests from prominent academics in Europe, Canada and the United States. Leading the effort was a group of distinguished British scientists, among them Lord Professor Robert Winston from Imperial College and Professor Michael Yudkin from Oxford University.

Asked for comment, Professor Zvi Ziegler, coordinator of the Israeli inter-university effort aimed at fighting academic boycotts, told Haaretz: “We are glad that the board of ENMESH realized that cancelling the conference in Israel was inappropriate and that negative campaigns, if they take place, should not affect academic decisions."