Palestine, the IASSW and the academic boycott of Israel: A call to action.

Those of us involved in the movement for Palestinian rights are very used to the twists and turns of the Israeli state and its accomplices abroad. They act together to silence and smear the movement for the liberation of Palestine. The Israelis refer to this as hasbara or advocacy for Israel. In reality, hasbara consists of well-funded campaigns of misinformation that work to delegitimise and demonise any criticism of the seemingly endless military occupation of Palestinian land. Israel even has an army of social media trolls that can be mustered at a moments notice to intervene in any social media critique of the Israeli state. False allegations of antisemitism are usually enough to chill the debate.

The more Israel feels it is losing legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, the more desperate and authoritarian it becomes. Just last week the Israeli state, without a shred of concrete evidence, issued a military order declaring that six leading Palestinian human rights groups were “terrorist organisations”. This would be laughable were it not for the fact that the order effectively makes the work of the organisations illegal and puts all of their human rights defenders at serious risk of raids and military detention.

Israel also works through proxy, overseas organisations such as UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) who mounted a concerted campaign against Defence for Children International – Palestine (DCI-P). DCI-P is a human rights organisation working on child protection issues including an international campaign to bring attention to the plight of Palestinian child prisoners who endure serious custodial penalties handed out by military courts for crimes such as for throwing stones at military vehicles (an offence that can attract up to 20 years in prison). In Aotearoa, 2,500 New Zealanders signed a petition in support of the demands of DCI-P, a petition that was received in parliament earlier this year by Golriz Ghahraman MP (Green Party). And yet, at the same time, UK Lawyers for Israel  “targeted DCIP through a well-orchestrated political and media misinformation campaign aimed at isolating it, seriously harming its reputation and integrity as a human rights organization, and preventing it from receiving charitable donations or raising funds” (DCI-P, 2021). The allegations were found to be unfounded in a UK court and UKLFI forced to publicly retract their statement. DCI-P is one of the six organisations that have now been declared terrorist by the Israeli state.

Israel, and its proxies, are also at work in the academic community to silence any criticism emerging from scholarly sources. One of the tools of their trade is a flawed definition of antisemitism promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). An organisation with the word holocaust in its title sounds like it might know a thing or two about antisemitism. So, when organisations are approached to adopt the definition, and they are, many do so without thinking it might be problematic. But the IHRA definition is a trojan horse. It widens the scope of antisemitism beyond genuinely despicable racist attacks on Jewish people to include legitimate criticism of the policies of the Israeli state. Once adopted, it is weaponised to undermine the promotion of the rights of Palestinians and, in particular, to undermine any moves to align with the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

The IHRA definition  has been critiqued by progressive Jewish scholars and disowned by its original author who never imagined it would be used in this way. The adoption of the IHRA definition by the University of Glasgow recently led them into the absurd position of apologising for the publication of an academic article in one of their journals. The article had the audacity to examine the methods used by Israel to shape public opinion and garner support from the UK Government. The apology, and the mistaken assumption that the article was antisemitic, led to an international outcry and the submission to the university of a petition by over 500 scholars including Noam Chomsky and several New Zealand academics. Incidentally, that same definition was almost adopted by Wellington City Council until a campaign was mounted to highlight the problems.

I’m pleased to report that the International Federation of Social Workers has taken a consistently strong stance in solidarity with the Palestinian people. In 2014 the International Association of Schools of Social Work had a similar stance.

However, more recently, the IASSW has been influenced by a group of social work educators (organised by US, German and Israeli academics) arguing against the BDS movement and advocating for a more pro-Israeli position. As is often the case, the stance advocated is one that masquerades as even-handed. It prefers not to refer to the military occupation, or to Israel’s ongoing settler-colonial project, or to its apartheid walls and infrastructure. Instead, Israel is normalised and the situation presented as two sides of a conflict that might benefit from some friendly Western mediation! In response to this pro-Israeli influence, in June of this year, the IASSW adopted the resolution described below. Several IASSW representatives attempted to strengthen the resolution by aligning it with the BDS movement, but were voted down.

Colleagues, and we address this to social work academics in Aotearoa in the first instance, it is time to take a stand. We should begin by ensuring that our own Council for Social Work Education in Aotearoa New Zealand (CSWEANZ) adopts a firm commitment to support the BDS academic boycott of Israel. It seems fitting that a movement to challenge the current position of the IASSW should start in a country that knows a thing or two about colonisation and Western attempts to erase it. The call to action below, signed by several colleagues, will be put before the next meeting of CSWEANZ and we urge you to add your name. To do so just email We would also be very interested in hearing from overseas social work educators who share our concerns about the direction of travel of the IASSW and who might want to work with us to change it.


We, the undersigned social work academic staff, call on CSWEANZ to adopt a resolution and make a public commitment to the call of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions and to adhere to the academic boycott guidelines as disseminated by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

As stated by the BDS movement:

Israeli universities are major, willing and persistent accomplices in Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.

They are involved in developing weapon systems and military doctrines deployed in Israel’s recent war crimes in Lebanon and Gaza, justifying the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land, rationalizing gradual ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians, providing moral justification for extra-judicial killings, systematically discriminating against “non-Jewish” students, and other implicit and explicit violations of human rights and international law.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was initiated in 2004 to contribute to the struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. It advocates for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions for their deep and persistent complicity in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights that are stipulated in international law.

We note with concern, a recent statement made by the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) on 14 June, 2021 that, “we support constructive  ventures of social work and social development in Palestine and Israel and for IASSW to engage social work educators in Palestine and Israel to take actions towards peaceful resolution of the conflict”.

This statement, and the intentions of the IASSW to engage with both Palestinian and Israeli educators, is tantamount to the normalization of the occupation. In particular, the use of the term “conflict” rather than military occupation creates the mistaken impression that there are two sides equally responsible for the current situation.

We draw the attention of our colleagues to PACBI guideline seven on normalization which states that:

In the Palestinian context, normalization refers to any activity that creates the impression that Israel is a state like any other and that Palestinians, the oppressed, and Israel, the oppressor, are both equally responsible for “the conflict”. Far from challenging the unjust status quo, such projects contribute to its endurance and are intellectually dishonest and should be boycotted. However, a joint Palestinian/Arab- Israeli project is not boycottable if: (a) the Israeli party in the project recognizes the comprehensive Palestinian rights under international law (corresponding to the 3 rights in the BDS call); and (b) the project/activity is one of “co-resistance” rather than “co-existence.”

The PACBI guidelines do not rule out involvement in joint Palestinian/Arab-Israeli projects but the guidelines ensure such initiatives are conducted in ways that do not normalize Israeli oppression.

In short, prior to any attempt to engage with Palestinian or Israeli social work educators, or to intervene in any way within the Palestinian context, social work academic staff and their organisations should join thousands of other international academic staff, academic institutions and student unions in declaring their support for the call from Palestinian civil society for the academic boycott of Israel. The terms of the PACBI academic boycott are entirely in keeping with the IFSW and IASSW’s Global Social Work Statement of Ethical Principles.

Any CSWEANZ resolution in support of the academic boycott should include an expectation that CSWEANZ representatives on IASSW bodies should work with other social work academic staff and organisations to have the IASSW commit to the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions.


Neil Ballantyne, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

Professor Liz Beddoe, University of Auckland.

Jude Douglas, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

Dr Ian Hyslop, University of Auckland.

Associate Professor Emily Keddell, University of Otago.

Lisa King, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

Liz Mahoney, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

Peter Matthewson, Unitec Institute of Technology.

Dr David McNabb, Unitec Institute of Technology.

Michelle Morum, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

Dr Adele Parkinson, Ara Institute of Canterbury.

Dr Lesley Pitt, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand.

2 replies on “Palestine, the IASSW and the academic boycott of Israel: A call to action.”

I whole-heartedly, passionately support this call for justice. In 2016 I had the privilege of visiting the West Bank, spending time in Palestinian communities under occupation and oppression, seeing the horrific encroachment of Israeli settlements tearing communities and peoples apart from their lands, and hearing the cries of activists and leaders. Regular demolitions of Palestinian family homes, and detention of children in military prisons, are absolutely outrageous. The 17-year-old son of one of my friends there has been shot twice by occupation forces and detained in prison for months on end without charge. I was also able to give a presentation about this to the International Social Work conference in Dublin in 2018, following the debate at the IFSW meeting about a motion censuring the Israeli Association of Social Workers for their inadequate stand on human rights. A luta continua

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.