Persecution and Israeli Academia

Published February 14, 2024

The Public Discourse

An eerie silence envelops Kfar Aza, one of the Israeli communities brutally attacked by Hamas on October 7, 2023. Windows remain shattered from the grenades and ammunition used by Hamas terrorists on homes and shelters. Damaged remnants of a flourishing community litter the ground: bedsheets, toys, chairs with bullet holes, and mangled screens. Three months after the Hamas massacres and rapes, Israeli and Arab communities still reel from Hamas’s atrocities.

I was in Israel earlier in January on an academic solidarity mission with other faculty from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to visiting the affected Israeli communities, we met with academics at Israeli universities and institutions. Because of the horrifying scenes in places like Kfar Aza; because Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, were felled in the October 7 attacks; because of the hostages still in captivity; and because of the fighting raging in Gaza, it was impossible not to discuss this tragedy. At one dinner, I sat next to a cancer researcher. Within five minutes, our conversation turned from telomeres and cellular mutations to the events of October 7. But equally disturbing, conversations that night turned to a burgeoning yet covert academic boycott against colleagues because of Israel’s war with Hamas.

In academia, promotion and advancement hinge on cooperation between researchers all over the world. Graduate students complete postdoc years abroad where they study, teach, or do research at another institution. There, they learn from future colleagues, assimilate new ideas, and build on their Ph.D. work. This allows them to apply for a faculty position with more experience. 

Furthermore, promotion in academia requires letters of recommendation from faculty members at other institutions who don’t know the applicant personally but know of his or her work. Thus, success in the academy relies on collaborative research between researchers at different institutions. It necessitates submitting articles for publication and being on editorial boards of academic journals. International cooperation is essential, particularly for a small country like Israel.

Covert academic boycotts consist of leaving requests for letters of recommendation unanswered, not inviting colleagues to be on editorial boards or to speak at conferences, or rejecting articles for publication. It can mean leaving applications for postdoc positions unanswered. It can mean not inviting Israelis to participate in international, multi-center research work. 

This is done without explanation or justification. True, this is difficult to separate from a simple lack of interest in a candidate’s work. And, to be sure, it can take time to notice a change. Professors often need reminders to write letters or read over applications. However, many Israeli colleagues said recent changes seem suspicious: requests for letters of recommendation for promotion are being left unanswered; postdoc positions seem less likely to be offered to Israeli Ph.D. students; and Israelis receive fewer requests to collaborate. Some Israeli academics have publicly stated that collaborations have been cut or articles have been rejected by journals without explanation. In a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on November 30, Professor Rivka Carmi, the former president of Ben-Gurion University, said that Israeli scholars have faced “a rejection of offers to attend conferences in Israel, and an end of invitations to conferences abroad.” Rachelle Alterman, professor emerita of urban planning and law at the Technion, described the current level of discrimination as “extremely dark,” affecting senior researchers as well as younger scholars. The chances of young Israeli academics’ being accepted to institutions internationally for a postdoc program, she said, have declined by a double-digit percentage.

Beyond the creeping evidence of covert academic boycotts, there are also more explicit efforts. In November, 939 Nordic researchers and academic staff called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, with exceptions made only for individual Israeli scholars who explicitly condemned the war in Gaza. And of course, many individual Israeli and Jewish students now on campuses outside Israel, have faced blatant hostility after October 7.

This discrimination within the academy builds on decades-long attempts to legitimize academic boycotts of Israel. In 2007, the United Kingdom’s University and College Union recommended that its members forbid academic collaboration with Israelis. In 2009, during a previous war in Gaza, a group of American professors called for an academic boycott of Israel. In 2013, the American Studies Association called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Earlier in 2023, before the October 7 attacks, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) joined the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Middle East Studies Association, the National Women’s Studies Association, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In that statement, the AAA argued that the Israeli state operates an “apartheid regime from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”

As academics in Israel pointed out to me, though, overt discrimination is easier to deal with because it is recognizable. Covert discrimination involves being ignored. How does one oppose those who won’t even admit that they won’t engage with you? And how much harder is it to call out this subtle and passive-aggressive prejudice?

Whether covert or overt, such boycotts punish Israeli academics for the policies of their government, the stances of their universities, or their personal political opinions, without allowing any debate. They demonize a whole group of scholars because of their nationality, treating Israeli Jews, their institutions, and their government as indistinguishably culpable. 

Many academics, perhaps recognizing the extreme nature of such boycotts, justify them by caricaturing Israeli policies as comparable to Nazism. It is only by such extreme assertions that boycotts can justify themselves.

As I walked through the ruins of Kfar Aza with my colleagues, artillery fire could be heard from just a few miles away, punctuating a pained silence. The war in Gaza, started by a brutal and theocratic terrorist organization, is costly enough. But attempts to punish Israeli scholars destroy the academic ideal for the sake of an age-old blood libel. It is perhaps comforting to note that these libels rest on bigotry, a most fragile house of cards. And an academy with a stronger sense of purpose and confidence in its own ideals will not yield to such an unclothed emperor. Indeed, we ought to retrench and reinforce those ideals. For when the artillery fire stops and Israeli and Gaza communities are reconstituted, I wonder whether the sacrifice of academic integrity will have been worth this furtive academic pogrom.  

Aaron Rothstein, M.D., is an EPPC fellow in the Bioethics and American Democracy Program and an attending neurovascular physician and neuroepidemiologist. He completed his neurovascular fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania and his residency in neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. He received a B.A. in History from Yale University and his M.D. from the Wake Forest School of Medicine.

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