In First, European Academic Association Cancels Upcoming Conference in Israel

Fearing backlash from boycott movement, association of mental health researchers walks back decision to hold confab in Jerusalem

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

A European association of mental health researchers has canceled plans to hold its next conference in Israel over fears of a backlash from the international boycott movement.

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This is the first time that an organization of this kind has walked back on an already approved decision to hold a conference in Israel, indicating that the campaign to boycott Israeli academics may be gaining traction.

The European Network for Mental Health Service Evaluation (ENMESH), which has 400 members, had decided at its last biennial conference, 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.

However, two weeks later, Mike Slade, a professor of mental health recovery and social inclusion at the University of Nottingham who serves as chairman of the executive committee, sent a letter to members of the ENMESH board notifying them of his unilateral decision not to hold the conference in Jerusalem.

He explained in his letter, according to sources with whom it was shared, 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 in the letter that if the organization went ahead with plans to hold its next conference in Israel, it could expect to spend the next two years embroiled in controversy and under pressure from the boycott campaign.

The cancellation has sparked outrage among some members of the association: Bernd Puschner, a professor of psychiatry at Ulm University in Germany who serves as secretary of the executive committee, resigned several days ago in protest, Haaretz has learned. So has David Roe, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, the Israeli representative on the executive board.

The decision has also prompted a letter of protest from the Israel Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, which has many members active in ENMESH.  In the letter, Sylvia Tessler-Lozowick, chair of the Jerusalem-based organization, referred to the cancellation as “startling” and charged that it was motivated by considerations she termed ”irrelevant and dishonorable for a professional organization.

“For some of you, it’s an ideological stance,” she wrote, “for others an evasion of unpleasantness generated by the ideologues. Whatever your personal reasons, you have compromised your professional values in the name of political posturing.”

Ilanit Hasson-Ohayon, a professor of psychology from Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, was a member of the committee charged with planning the upcoming gathering. She told Haaretz that the proposal to hold the 2021 conference in Jerusalem had already been raised two years ago, at the previous ENMESH conference held in the Netherlands.

“We, the Israeli members, were not the ones behind this initiative to hold the conference in Jerusalem,” she said.  Four Israelis, including herself, were appointed to a committee charged with organizing the 2021 conference. “On the last day of the conference in Lisbon, we all bade farewell to one another saying ‘see you in two years in Israel,’” she said.

Asked by Haaretz for comment on his decision, Slade wrote in an email: “ENMESH is an informal research network with no formal infrastructure or funding. We did initially decide to hold our 2021 conference in Israel. Several board members from around Europe subsequently raised concerns about the chosen location, while others were supportive of the venue. In my role as chair, I consulted with many colleagues from within and beyond the ENMESH board, including colleagues in Israel, about the best way forward given the differing views expressed by board members.

"Following this consultation, I concluded that it was on balance in the best interests of ENMESH to change plans. While I do recognize that the decision will be seen by some as ideological, it was in fact just a practical decision taken in the best interests of ENMESH. No 'bullying' was involved and there is no statement being made about supporting or not supporting a boycott of Israel.”

Professor Zvi Ziegler, coordinator of the Israeli inter-university effort aimed at fighting academic boycotts, confirmed that this was the first instance of an academic organization cancelling a decision to hold a conference in Israel. He called on the executive committee of ENMESH to “cancel the cancellation.”

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 a 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.