The student encampment at the University of Barcelona (Photo: Acampada per Palestina Barcelona)

Academic boycotts claim wins as EU universities start cutting ties with Israel

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An increasing number of European universities have committed to severing or reviewing ties with Israeli universities, after student protests supporting Palestine and calling for a boycott spread across Europe last month. 

The Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels’ French-speaking university, has been the latest to join the list. Issuing a statement on Monday (26 May) the ULB said that it would suspend ties with both Israeli and Palestinian universities until “their respective university authorities make a clear commitment to the demands made by the International Court of Justice ... and the unconditional release of the Israeli hostages".

Students demanding to cut ties had moved to occupy a campus building in the beginning of May. 

Previously, other Belgian universities made similar promises, with the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Ugent and KU Leuven all promising to review or sever ties with Israeli institutions. Students had called for an academic boycott amid mounting outrage over the humanitarian situation in Gaza and Israel's attack on Rafah.

In Spain, the response has been the strongest, with the Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities (CRUE) collectively committing to review collaborations with Israeli academic institutions earlier this month. 

Since then, universities in Granada and Ovideo have suspended ties, followed last Wednesday (22 May) by the University of Barcelona. The latter has gone as far as calling upon the EU to exclude Israel from Horizon Europe – the EU-funded research programme that makes cutting ties with Israel universities particularly difficult.

The ICJ ruling in particular helped propel the academic boycott, which is a campaign launched by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. Several university administrations referred to South Africa’s pending genocide case to justify their decision.

Geographical pattern

Other examples of European countries where academic ties were suspended or reviewed include Ireland, where in early May Trinity College Dublin was the first European university to respond to its students' demands, and Norway, where several universities cut ties as early as February.

A geographical pattern has thus emerged, closely corresponding to Europe’s political divisions - with governments in Belgium, Spain, Ireland and Norway among Israel’s most vocal critics, the latter three moving to recognise Palestinian statehood earlier this week.

László Molnárfi, President of the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union and one of the organisers of a student encampment, emphasised the role of Irish public opinion, which is squarely in support of Palestine. 

“The public support that we had, the student support, the staff support, all this put so much pressure on the college,” Molnárfi told EUobserver.

In a statement on the encampment, Trinity College was also keen to set itself apart from universities elsewhere, referring to “the disproportionate response we have seen at some institutions overseas.” 

Similarly, the ULB told the EUobserver that it had “sought to establish … dialogue with the occupiers, whose concerns and emotions they hear,” adding that “this dialogue has sometimes been possible, sometimes extremely complicated to maintain.”

By contrast, in the Netherlands, Germany and France, universities have mostly cracked down upon protests and encampments, with several university administrators calling in police to forcibly remove students, citing concerns over campus safety and academic freedom.

Institutional boycott

Still the protests in Europe had been “transformative” everywhere, argued Maya Wind, an Israeli anthropologist specialising in militarisation, and vocal supporter of the academic boycott. 

“What we’re seeing now is also a response to the enforced silence across western academia on the question of Palestine,” Wind told EUobserver, adding that the campus encampments should be seen as a democratisation of universities.

Wind also criticised the tendency of universities to review specific research programmes for ethics breaches, like Ugent has done. 

“Specificity is to miss the point, every university is implicated in apartheid and genocide”, she argued, pointing to her research on the close connection between Israeli universities and the military.

But specific researchers shouldn’t be targeted either, the Wind noted. “This has never been a boycott of individuals, but of institutions.”

For its part, the Israeli government has also responded to rise in calls for a boycott, amid reports that Israeli academics have started to feel its consequences. 

Gila Gam, the Israeli minister of innovation, science and technology, said on X that she would commit €22m to combat the boycott, and “continue the fight against antisemitism.”