The boycott against Israel is spreading into new corners of society

An Israeli tank manoeuvres, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, near the Israel-Gaza border, in Israel. (Photo: Reuters)
An Israeli tank manoeuvres, amid the Israel-Hamas conflict, near the Israel-Gaza border, in Israel. (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

The campaign is gaining traction from academia to defense—with the potential to alter careers, hurt businesses and weigh on Israel’s economy.

TEL AVIV—Years of pro-Palestinian campaigning for a global boycott against Israel once found limited support. But in the months since the war in Gaza began, support for the isolation of Israel has grown and widened well beyond Israel’s war effort. -

The shift has the potential to alter Israeli careers, hurt businesses and weigh on the economy of a country of nine million people that depends on international cooperation and support for defense, commerce and scientific research.

When an ethics committee at Ghent University in Belgium recommended terminating all research collaborations with Israeli institutions in late May, Israeli computational biologist Eran Segal didn’t see it coming.

The sciences had seen little impact from global boycott movements, even months into the war, and Segal’s work had nothing to do with the Israeli military effort. The university’s research collaborations, the Ghent committee noted, include research on autism, Alzheimer’s disease, water purification and sustainable agriculture.

“Academic institutions develop technology for the security services that is later misused for human-rights violations, and provide training to soldiers and security services, who later misuse this knowledge for human-rights violations," the committee wrote.

The statement was “very alarming, very disturbing," said Segal, whose lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science, south of Tel Aviv, has a research partnership with Ghent University focusing on factors driving obesity. He said he doesn’t yet know if the project will be terminated.

The committee also called for a Europe-wide suspension of Israel’s participation in research and education programs, which often depend on European Union funding.

If European partners heed the call, “this would be a tremendous blow to our ability to do academic scientific research," Segal said.

The spate of new political and legal initiatives against Israel is unprecedented, said Eran Shamir-Borer, former head of the international law department in the Israeli military. They include moves against Israel and its leaders at the United Nations’ top court and the International Criminal Court.

“I think there is definitely reason for concern for Israel," said Shamir-Borer, now a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “Becoming a pariah state means that even if things don’t happen formally, less companies feel that they want to invest in Israel in the first place, less universities want to collaborate with Israeli institutions. Things just happen when you get this symbolic status."

Israelis are finding they are no longer welcome at many European universities, including participating in scientific collaborations. Their participation in cultural institutions and defense trade shows is increasingly becoming taboo.

Lidor Madmoni, chief executive of a small Israeli defense startup, prepared for months for a June international weapons show in Paris. The conference, Eurosatory, would be a rare opportunity for his small staff to expand their business, he said. Then came an email informing him that, because of a French court decision, his company was prohibited from attending.

“We have the obligation to block your access to the exhibition starting tomorrow," the organizers said on the eve of the event, citing court orders that followed a French defense ministry ban issued in response to Israeli military operations in Rafah, the Gaza city where more than one million people had sought refuge.

The French decisions “shocked the entire community" of Israeli defense technology companies, said Noemie Alliel, managing director in Israel for Starburst Aerospace, an international consulting firm that develops and invests in startups in aerospace and defense. Conference organizers said they had appealed to overturn the court decision and told Israeli companies in an email that they were doing all that they could to enable them to attend.

After the conference opened, a French court overturned the ban, but for Madmoni it was too late. Many Israeli companies had already withdrawn.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, formed in 2005 by Palestinian civil-society organizations, has called for years for the use of international pressure on Israel to promote its goals, which include the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and winning the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to live in Israel. But the movement found limited traction.

The environment changed after Israel responded to the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, with around 250 hostages taken to Gaza, according to Israel.

Some longtime goals of BDS and other pro-Palestinian organizations are being realized as a result of the war, in which around 38,000 people have died in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to Palestinian officials. The figure doesn’t specify how many were combatants. Months of fighting, the human toll and images of devastation in Gaza have fueled international opposition to how Israel has carried out the war.

“As Israeli companies and institutions become isolated, Israel will find it more difficult to oppress Palestinians," BDS says on its website. BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti declined to comment for this article.

When the war began, new boycotts began to trickle in, mainly from humanities and social-science departments, said Netta Barak-Corren, a law professor who heads an antiboycott task force formed during the war at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The boycotts began to widen around two months ago, spreading to the hard sciences and to the university level—“university-wide movements and more importantly decisions to cut all ties with Israeli universities and Israeli academics," she said.

More than 20 universities in Europe and Canada have adopted such bans, she said.

An Israeli student who was preparing to study at the University of Helsinki said she was already looking for housing in Finland—until the school told her in May that it had suspended its exchange agreements with Israeli universities.

The University of Helsinki stopped sending students to Israel after Oct. 7 and decided to suspend exchanges in May to express its concern about the conflict, said Minna Koutaniemi, the head of the school’s international exchange services. The university doesn’t intend to restrict its researchers from collaborating with Israelis, she said.

Boycotts are gaining traction across the academic spectrum. Cultural Critique, a journal published by the University of Minnesota Press, told an Israeli sociologist in May that his essay was barred from consideration because, they believed, he was affiliated with an Israeli institution.

The journal told the scholar that it follows BDS guidelines, “which include ‘withdrawing support from Israel’s…cultural and academic institutions’."

Cultural Critique subsequently apologized for excluding the article on the basis of the scholar’s academic affiliation and amended its website to say that submissions would be evaluated “without regard to the identity and affiliation of the author." It invited the scholar to resubmit.

Israeli leaders have long criticized boycott efforts. President Isaac Herzog told an economic conference in May that Israel’s enemies “are trying to isolate us in order to harm us."

“The enemy, the evil empire of Iran and its proxies, along with various promoters of boycotts, are attempting in every way to damage [commercial] connections through an aggressive, cynical international campaign against us," he said.

Growing pressure on Israel includes an order in May by the U.N’s International Court of Justice that Israel halt military operations in Rafah, and a request by the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor for arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s defense minister and the leaders of Hamas, accusing them of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Biden administration criticized the move by the ICC prosecutor.

The U.S., a staunch ally of Israel, has imposed sanctions not on Israel but on Israeli groups perceived to be acting illegally to harm Palestinians, including settlers involved in violent attacks in the West Bank, and extremist groups involved in disrupting Gaza aid deliveries.

The Israeli defense-exports sector—flourishing before the war, with a record $13 billion in sales in 2023—got wind in March that it could be a target, when Chile barred Israeli companies from taking part in Latin America’s biggest aerospace fair. The French ban followed in June.

The U.S. provides Israel with more than $3 billion in military aid every year and provided a surge in weapons shipments after Oct. 7. U.S. officials said shipments have slowed since then because many weapons have already been sent and the Israeli government has put in fewer new requests. Some nongovernmental organizations have gone to court to challenge governments’ arms sales to Israel, including in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Denmark.

In light of the war in Gaza, Canada has said it won’t sell weapons to Israel.

In Europe, fund managers are reviewing their positions in light of the war, said Kiran Aziz, who screens holdings in Norway’s largest private pension fund, KLP, for activities that go against its ethical guidelines.

“I know this is something that everybody is looking into," she said.

KLP unloaded over $68 million in shares in U.S. company Caterpillar in late June, citing a statement by the U.N. human-rights commission that said arms transfers to Israel could violate human rights and international humanitarian laws and called on 11 multinational companies—including Caterpillar—to end exports to Israel. Caterpillar didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Israeli international collaborations do still continue. More than 1,000 Scandinavian artists signed an unsuccessful petition to ban Israel from the Eurovision Song Contest. Singer Eden Golan represented Israel at the final in Sweden in May, finishing fifth after performing a song she said was inspired by the Oct. 7 attack on Israel. A Norwegian jury member said he didn’t give any points to Israel because of its actions in Gaza, a violation of Eurovision rules that prohibit judges from awarding points based on a performer’s nationality.

But some creative artists abroad are cutting themselves off from Israel. Since the start of the war, a few dozen authors, most of them American, have refused to have their books translated into Hebrew and sold in Israel, said Efrat Lev, the foreign-rights director at the Deborah Harris Agency in Israel, a literary agency.

One author who had worked with the agency and wrote a young-adult book focusing on queer acceptance refused to publish a second book in Israel, although a contract had already been signed and a translation to Hebrew was under way, said Lev.

“I felt that it was an important book for Israeli kids who are experiencing similar experiences," she said. “This broke my heart."

Write to Anat Peled at anat.peled@wsj.com

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