In Defeat for Boycott Movement, Academic Conference Back on Track to Be Held in Israel

Had decision not been reversed, it would have been the first time an academic association canceled a planned conference in Israel

Demonstrators wear shirts reading "Boycott Israel" during a protest in Paris, Dec. 9, 2017.
AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu

An unprecedented decision to cancel an academic conference that was scheduled to be held in Israel over fears of a backlash from the international boycott movement has been reversed.

The European Network for Mental Health Service Evaluation (ENMESH), which has 400 members, voted several days ago to uphold a resolution to hold its biennial conference in Israel.

Sylvia Tessler-Lozowick, chair of the Israel Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, the hosting organization, told Haaretz the exact venue and dates had not yet been finalized but that they “aim for June 2021.”

At the body’s most recent gathering in Lisbon in June, it was resolved the next event would take place in Jerusalem, but, as first reported in Haaretz, the chairman of ENMESH’s executive committee unilaterally backed out of the plan two weeks later.

In a letter sent to ENMESH board members, Mike Slade, a professor of mental health recovery and social inclusion at the University of Nottingham, explained that this was essentially an attempt at damage control since he had received complaints about the chosen venue from several board members, and anticipated a further backlash. He noted that if the plan went ahead, the organization could expect to spend the next two years embroiled in controversy and under pressure from the boycott campaign.

The cancellation sparked outrage among some members of the association: Bernd Puschner, a professor of psychiatry at Ulm University in Germany who served as secretary of the executive committee, resigned in protest, as did David Roe, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa and the Israeli representative on the executive board.

A month later, following international outcry, ENMESH announced it was reconsidering Slade’s decision. It also announced that Slade would be stepping down from his position as chairman of the executive committee and would be replaced by Puschner.

Had Slade’s decision not been overturned, it would have been the first time an academic association had backtracked on a commitment to hold a conference in Israel – and likely hailed as a major victory for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.

In 2013, two relatively small academic organizations based in the United States – the Association for Asian-American Studies and the American Studies Association – voted to boycott Israeli universities and academic institutions. A similar move by the much larger American Anthropological Association was struck down in 2016.

In March, the senate at the University of Cape Town voted to impose the first-ever blanket boycott on all Israeli academic institutions and Israeli academics. That decision is now under review by higher authorities at the university but not entirely off the table.