International Conference at Hebrew University Nixed Over Judicial ‘Turmoil’ in Israel

Organizers cited the ‘worrisome and tense situation’ in Israel; University president warns: This is an immediate example of what else could happen to academia

A major international conference on behavioral economics scheduled to take place at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in May has been canceled by the organizers due to the “turmoil” generated by the regime coup being legislated by the government.

The organizers responded to the university’s request and withheld the decision to call off the event, but after the coalition rejected President Isaac Herzog’s compromise they finally announced its cancellation.

The organizing committee, made up of three researchers from abroad and two from Israel, sent participants a letter saying the situation in Israel continues to be worrisome and tense, and no solution is expected in the near future. “Therefore, we were forced to conclude it wouldn’t be appropriate to hold the conference amid this turmoil.”

The conference was to mark the 50th anniversary of the seminal work of the late researcher Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, for which the latter received the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences in 2002. The organizers said the event was to be one of the largest ever in the world on making decisions in conditions of uncertainty.

Hebrew University President Prof. Asher Cohen said, “This was supposed to be a conference of extraordinary quality, to which first-rate scientists were invited.”

“Institutions like the Hebrew University exist also on the basis of international cooperation. This cancellation is an immediate example of what else could happen to academia. The damage is long term and could be irrevocable.”

Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, one of the organizing committee members, a pioneer in behavioral science and economics and Nobel Memorial Prize laureate for Economic Sciences in 2017, told Haaretz the event’s initiators had followed the developments in Israel closely. ‘We reluctantly decided that we could not proceed with this event at this time. Not only is it difficult to predict what the situation in Jerusalem will be two months from now, but also, we believed that the majority of the conference participants support the pro-democracy movement in Israel and would not want to cross lines of peaceful protestors or signal tacit support to the actions of the Netanyahu government, which threaten both democracy and the rule of law.’

Committee head Prof. Ran Hassin of Hebrew University said, “All the great pioneers of the field were scheduled to arrive, it’s one of the largest events in the world in this field in recent years, with more than 50 guests from abroad.”

He added, “The researchers from abroad didn’t want to come. In addition to the ideological consideration, which was very clear here, there was also a practical one. They watch the news and see riots in Hawara, terror attacks in Tel Aviv. It’s not very appealing.”

He warned that the cancellation could be an indication of the damage to Israel’s status in the international scientific community. The political situation in Israel could impact the funds Israeli scientists receive from abroad, he said. “It begins with conferences and it’s not clear where it will go. I’m already hearing of groups from abroad that are hesitating whether to take on Israeli partners. Without international partnerships there’s no science,” he said.

Professor Eldar Shafir, director of the center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Princeton University, who was also a member of the organizing panel, told Haaretz: “This was a difficult and sad decision. Unfortunately, the feeling was that the situation was not right for celebratory events.”