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Academic association cancels conference in Israel after backlash

Palestinians climb the ladder to cross the separation wall and reach Jerusalem in order to perform the first Friday Prayer of Islamic holy month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, after Israeli authorities' don't allow men under 40 years old for the passage, in the Al-Ram town of Jerusalem, on 10 May, 2019 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinians climb the ladder to cross the separation wall and reach Jerusalem in order to perform the first Friday Prayer of Islamic holy month of Ramadan at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, after Israeli authorities' don't allow men under 40 years old for the passage, in the Al-Ram town of Jerusalem, on 10 May, 2019 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

In what is being described as the first cancellation of its kind, a European association of mental health researchers has cancelled plans to hold a conference in Israel, “over fears of a backlash from the international boycott movement”.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the decision by the European Network for Mental Health Service Evaluation (ENMESH) “is the first time that an organisation of this kind has walked back on an already approved decision to hold a conference in Israel”.

Such a development, the paper added, indicates “that the campaign to boycott Israeli academics may be gaining traction”.

ENMESH, which has around 400 members, decided during the course of its June conference in Lisbon that a gathering scheduled for summer 2021 would take place in Jerusalem.

Two weeks later, however, the ENMESH executive committee chair wrote to the organisation’s board members notifying them of the decision not to hold the conference in Jerusalem.

Mike Slade, a professor at the University of Nottingham, reportedly explained in his letter that the decision was an attempt at damage control, since he had already “received complaints about the chosen venue from several board members and anticipated a further backlash”.

READ: Mental illness affects a fifth of people living in war zones

The chair further noted that if ENMESH “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”.

In response to the cancellation, the Israeli representative on the executive board, David Roe, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, has resigned, as has the secretary of the executive committee, German Professor Bernd Puschner.

The chair of the Israel Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, meanwhile, Sylvia Tessler-Lozowick, slammed the cancellation as “political posturing”.

Responding to a question from Haaretz, Slade explained that while ENMESH had initially decided to hold the 2021 conference in Israel, “several board members from around Europe subsequently raised concerns about the chosen location, while others were supportive of the venue”.

After consulting with colleagues, the chair continued, he “concluded that it was on balance in the best interests of ENMESH to change plans”.

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