Israeli researchers see major drop in international cooperation since Oct. 7

After nearly seven months without a plan, the Innovation, Science and Technology Ministry says it will form a panel to deal with the boycott led by academics in European countries

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Micro algae samples used in research on June 11, 2020, in Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Illustrative: Micro algae samples used in research on June 11, 2020, in Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)

A recently released report by the Innovation, Science and Technology Ministry points to a sharp decrease in willingness by academic researchers from some European countries to cooperate with their Israeli counterparts since October 7.

Among the countries leading the boycott are Norway, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Ireland. Also on the list are Italy, which has a long and important history of academic cooperation with Israel, as well as Belgium, a leader in the European research community.

According to a summary of the report published Thursday by Channel 13 news, 38 percent of Israeli research is conducted in cooperation with European academics, with 2023 reaching the highest level of cooperation in Israel’s history.

However, since October 7 and the beginning of the war sparked by the Hamas onslaught, there has been a reduction in funding of joint research ventures, as well as fewer exchanges of Israeli and European academics.

Access to laboratories and research infrastructure in Europe is now more limited for Israelis. In addition, Israelis’ participation in professional conferences has been either canceled or prevented by organizers.

The boycott primarily, but not exclusively, affects research in the fields of medicine, biology, physics, space and computer science.

At this point, the Israeli government does not have a plan to address the crisis.

Then-intelligence minister Gila Gamliel at a conference in Jerusalem, on February 25, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Newly-appointed Science and Technology Minister Gila Gamliel said that she will work with the Foreign Ministry and appoint a committee after the Passover holiday, which ends Monday night, to deal with the matter.

The Times of Israel reported last December about boycott concerns in an article about a solidarity visit by a delegation from the Max Planck Society, Germany’s leading non-university research organization comprised of 85 different institutes.

Two months into the war, Max Planck Society president Patrick Cramer said that some of his Israeli colleagues had already shared that since October 7, they had been shunned by international collaborators, conference organizers and important research publications.

Cramer told The Times of Israel that he found this unacceptable and that his society had offered colleagues from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot a venue in Berlin to hold a planned conference.

Members of Max Planck Society delegation with presidents and vice presidents of Israeli universities at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, November 28, 2023. (Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

While acknowledging the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population that would result from the war, the official statement issued by the Max Planck Society was unequivocal in its strong condemnation of the brutal October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel.

Cramer was also resolute in his stance against antisemitism, which has reared its head on many university campuses globally.

“In democracies, you can criticize political decisions, a political party or a government. This criticism is often required. But there must be no tolerance for antisemitism and we are making that clear,” Cramer said.

Such support of Israeli research is very much lacking in other quarters.

In November, The Marker reported that previously existing latent animus toward Israel among international researchers had risen to the surface.

That article quoted Prof. Rivka Carmi, former president of Ben-Gurion University and head of Science Abroad, an organization that supports Israeli scientists working and studying abroad.

She said that studies involving Israeli researchers were being refused for peer review and that universities and institutes abroad were refusing to look at Israelis’ curriculum vitae submitted for the possibility of hiring and career advancement.

Former Ben-Gurion University president Rivka Carmi. (Dani Machlis/Ben-Gurion University)

Dr. Udi Sommer, an associate professor in the political science department at Tel Aviv University and currently a research fellow at John Jay College of the City University of New York, told The Marker that he had encountered researchers who had cut off contact with Israel and Israeli colleagues.

“This is disappointing emotionally, and on the professional level, this is worrisome. Israel needs to devise a strategy to deal with the current crisis and foresee the next one,” he said.

Prof. Ido Wolf, director of the oncology division at Ichilov Hospital and head of the Tel Aviv University Medical School, told the Ynet news site that he was especially concerned by the effects of the boycott — hidden or not — on Israeli medicine, pharma and patient health.

Wolf said he foresees major problems if international investors stop investing in Israeli med tech and biotech. It took only a short time after the war’s outbreak for him to notice pharma companies who usually cooperate with Israeli scientists and compete to enroll Israeli patients in clinical trials, coming up with excuses why not to.

Prof. Ido Wolf, director of the Oncology Department at Sourasky Medical Center. (Courtesy: Sourasky Medical Center)

Earlier this month, Haaretz‘s weekend magazine ran an article based on testimonies of 60 Israeli researchers from all fields. Their experiences summarize what so many of their Israeli colleagues have faced since October 7.

They told of international colleagues abruptly ending communication and giving every possible excuse for doing so. Some messages were couched in terms seemingly meant to avoid excessive offense, such as “This is not the right time to invite an Israeli lecturer,” “This is an uncomfortable situation, but the government is not allowing Israelis to participate in the conference” and “I am unable right now to cooperate with any Israeli institution.”

Others did not hide their anti-Israel and anti-Zionist stance in messages such as, “I can no longer be connected to an institution committed to Zionism,” “Because of atrocities committed by Israel, thousands of professors call for blocking all cooperation,” “I don’t feel comfortable working with citizens of a state that is committing war crimes” and “Our students demanded from us that we stop supporting genocide.”

Senior researchers told Haaretz that they had never faced a situation like the current one during their careers. It’s perhaps even more upsetting for younger academics trying to establish themselves.

One such young researcher in the social sciences reportedly tried to refrain from crying as she told Haaretz that she saw her career going down the drain.

“I invested 20 years of study in my field,” she said. “But now my future looks very limited. A relationship with an Israeli researcher has become illegitimate.”

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