Scholars & Researchers Oppose Academic Boycott of Israel

Hundreds of academics from around the world have signed the following open letter, entitled “United Against the Academic Boycott of Israel,” still gathering signatories as of June 14, 2024:

Universities across the world are facing pressure – from students but also from faculty and staff – to cut ties with Israeli academic institutions over the war in Gaza. We, the undersigned scholars who teach and research in diverse fields of study at campuses across the globe, are deeply opposed to these efforts to shun and isolate our Israeli academic colleagues, and to deny our students the educational opportunities of studying in Israel.

Pressure from anti-Israel protests and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has already led to pervasive exclusion of Israeli scientists and students. Recently, over 60 Israeli academics from various disciplines have testified to an “unprecedented global boycott,” including canceled invitations to lectures, rejections of scientific papers on political grounds, the freezing of collaborative research projects, disrupted guest lectures, withdrawn co-authorships, and more.

In the U.S., student organizations and activists on scores of campuses have recently called for closing existing academic partnerships with Israel, including study abroad programs and research collaborations. In response to a call from the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), nearly a hundred Faculty for Justice in Palestine chapters have now formed with the explicit mission of implementing an academic boycott of Israel on their campuses. Professional academic associations, including the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) have also now passed divisive resolutions to boycott Israel’s entire system of higher education.

In Europe, dozens of Spanish universities and five Norwegian universities have resolved to sever all ties with Israeli partners deemed “complicit” in the war in Gaza. Several Belgian universities have now suspended collaborations with Israel’s academic institutions. Ghent University (UGent) is halting its academic cooperation and terminating all 18 joint projects that it currently has with Israeli research institutes, universities, and colleges on account of their alleged “close ties” to the Israeli government. UGent is reportedly also now calling on the European Union to expel Israel from a treaty on academic cooperation.

In Canada, for well over a decade university student organizations have been passing BDS resolutions. Recently, students have set up protest encampments, often with faculty support and encouragement, where they have demanded both the divestment from, and boycott of, Israeli universities and academics. These demands are currently being amplified by faculty resolutions at union and university governance levels, including calls to review, and ultimately to sever, cooperation and exchange programs with Israeli academic institutions. Such demands, often fielded in petitions that share identical phrasing, have been issued at numerous Canadian universities including Toronto Metropolitan University, Université de Montreal, University of Windsor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Renison University College, The University of Saskatchewan, and Athabasca University. 

What arguments are there for such a boycott?

An open letter at Ghent University signed by more than 1500 students and staff, including dozens of professors (mainly from the humanities), denounces the stark “contrast” between the treatment of Israel and that of Russia in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, when many Western universities cut all ties with Russian universities. According to the signatories, Israel is currently committing a “genocide” in Gaza, and they demand that any cooperation with Israeli universities must accordingly be suspended “as long as the current war continues.” Yet, the “contrast” in reactions to both conflicts is perfectly defensible. On October 7, 2023 Israel experienced the worst slaughter of innocent Jews on a single day since the Holocaust. And Ukraine was brutally invaded by Russia without any prior provocation or military threat, but because Putin imagines that Ukraine is a “fictional” nation that has no right to exist.

As for the “genocide” charge, we believe it is completely unacceptable. The death of civilians is a tragedy in this war, as in all others. But the unwanted and tragic death of Palestinian civilians during Israel’s targeting of legitimate military objectives in Gaza is not comparable to Hamas’s October 7 murder spree. While it is not antisemitic to question Israel’s military and counter-terror strategies, the accusation that Israel is deliberately pursuing literal physical genocide in Gaza traffics in ugly canards and tropes about the sinister and malevolent Jew. To be clear: the only genuinely genocidal party here is Hamas, which in its founding charter fantasizes about the killing of every last Jew on earth.

We do not deny the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We care deeply about the suffering of Palestinians and the loss of innocent life in the current conflict. We hope for an end to the violence, as soon as possible. However, we also acknowledge that Hamas has a long history of using Palestinian civilians as human shields, and deliberately firing rockets from hospitals, schools, UN buildings, mosques, and in the vicinity of humanitarian zones. All these reprehensible tactics are aimed at getting as many “martyrs” as possible in front of cameras, in order to manipulate political opinion and turn it against Israel. Judging by the sentiments prevalent on many of our college campuses, its cynical strategy has been a resounding success. 

Many academics in the West, accustomed to decades of peace and security, no longer understand what it means to live in a fragile democracy, which has been under existential threat since its very founding and is currently surrounded by enemies committed to wiping it off the map. In many countries, even in those that do not face such pressing security needs, academics across the disciplines—from engineering to public policy and more—work with the military. Israeli universities also work with the country’s military in various ways, for instance to develop legal frameworks for warfare and capabilities for defense. Would anyone consider it ethical to sever our collaborations with Ukrainian universities because they are now joining forces with the Ukrainian army to defend their country from annihilation?

In our view, like any government, the current Israeli government can be criticized and held accountable for many transgressions. But why the relentless and exclusive focus on Israel? Many universities in our own countries also have bilateral partnerships with universities in Indonesia, China, Qatar, Turkey and Malaysia. These countries are hardly known for their stellar human rights record. They also engage in military occupations and are ranked well below Israel on the Democracy Index of The Economist and the V-Dem institute. Some even have bilateral agreements with Birzeit University in the West Bank, where Hamas has a dominant presence. Birzeit excludes Israeli Jews, names buildings after convicted terrorists, and posted “Glory to the Martyrs” on its social media account three days after October 7. We do not support academic boycotts as a matter of principle. Yet it is telling that there is no call to boycott a campus like Birzeit. Nor is there any international BDS movement being waged against any of these other countries. Only the world’s single Jewish-majority state is targeted for this kind of delegitimization.

In a democracy like Israel, universities are indispensable parts of civil society. They facilitate a critical examination and a questioning of government policies. Such criticism is still very much possible in Israel. Those who oppose the policies of the current Israeli government will find numerous allies among Israeli academics. Indeed, last year many of them took the lead in the protests against the governing coalition’s judicial reforms, which were viewed by many as a threat to Israel’s democratic character. Israeli universities are committed to promoting equality and a shared society. Each year they enroll tens of thousands of Palestinian and Arab students, and field a wide range of diversity and inclusion programs. They too will be targeted by a blanket boycott of Israeli universities, which will in no way contribute to peace, but will instead weaken the liberal forces in Israeli society.

In the face of both brutality and tragedy, the response must not be a discriminatory end to academic exchange or the severing of ties among cross-national researchers and students. Instead, we must double-down to reinforce these connections and to build new ones. We urge faculty-facing organizations in our countries, including the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the National Conference of University Professors (NCUP), the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (DHV), and other groups committed to an open academic community, to assist us in this effort and to forcefully denounce pernicious trends that are undermining the bedrock principles of the academy.   

(An earlier version of this Open Letter was written and circulated for signature by Dr. Maarten Boudry, former holder of the Etienne Vermeeersch Chair of Critical Thinking, Ghent University. It can be accessed in the original Dutch here).  


Endorsed by:

Academic Engagement Network

The Alliance for Academic Freedom

AMCHA Initiative  

BICOM: Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre

Faculty for Academic Freedom and Against Antisemitism

Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement

Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism

Jewish Institute for Liberal Values

Jewish Studies Zionist Network

London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism  

Network of Engaged Canadian Academics

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East