⛓️ What is political science for? A comment on ECPR’s silence over Gaza

Last month, a group of scholars submitted an open letter to ECPR's Executive Committee, calling upon it to condemn the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. ECPR declined. This response, argues Vladimir Bortun, was misguided, but at the same time represents an opportunity to open up debate about the mission of ECPR – and, indeed, about the very purpose of political science

Gaza and academic freedom

On 7 October 2023, Palestinian Hamas terrorists killed over 1,200 Israelis, and kidnapped more than 250 more. Since then, Israel has waged a military campaign which, at the time of writing, has claimed over 34,000 Palestinian victims, most of them women and children. Israel has reassured the international community repeatedly that it is doing everything possible to minimise civilian deaths. Several independent investigations, however, cast serious doubts on that claim.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many in the academic community have condemned Israel’s military operation. In mid-October, more than 800 scholars and practitioners of international law and conflict studies signed a public statement warning against the potential for genocide in Gaza. Soon after, nearly 300 UK-based sociologists signed a similar letter condemning Israel’s 'disproportionate response to the terror attack undertaken by Hamas'. More recently, over 100 members of the International Studies Association issued an open letter calling on their association to 'foster discussion and action in relation to the above-described violence'.

Academics, of course, have not spoken with one voice. Some, including Jürgen Habermas and colleagues, have argued for Israel’s right to defend itself, and for the need to tackle antisemitism. Yet the vast majority of publicly voiced concerns in higher education have been from those denouncing the catastrophe happening in Gaza. Indeed, pro-Palestine student-led protests have spread to dozens of university campuses around the world. In many cases, faculty members join their students in these protests.

Student-led protests have sometimes faced repression from university management and police forces. Punitive measures have also been taken against established academics expressing their condemnation of the killings in Gaza. What seems to be at stake, therefore, is not just the violence in Gaza but also the freedom to speak about it.

An open letter to ECPR and its negative response

It is in this context that Catherine Moury and Adam Standring sent an open letter to ECPR’s Executive Committee (EC) in early April. Already signed by 450 fellow political scientists, the letter (which you can still sign here), called upon ECPR 'to release a statement condemning Israel’s killings of civilians in Palestine'. It also urged the EC 'to join the calls of many international organisations in demanding an immediate ceasefire and the release of all hostages'.

The EC declined to release such a statement. In a public response to the letter, ECPR justified its decision on a number of grounds, namely:

  • 'we have a diverse membership with often divergent views'
  • 'a decision to release a statement on one crisis inevitably leads to questions over why statements are not released on other crises'
  • 'there are always questions over how meaningful such statements are'
  • 'rather than the issuing of statements, we should explore practical measures that we might take to support scholars (in areas) affected by the crises'
  • 'as an organisation devoted to the advancement of political science as a discipline, we should retain the focus on our core mission'

Below, I address these five interconnected issues in turn.

Five reasons for a ‘no’ that do not hold up

1 'Academic freedom' means different things to different people

First, the divergence of ECPR member affiliates' views is a given. At the same time, as stipulated in ECPR's Constitution, membership is open to any academic institution which 'satisfies the requirements for academic freedom as determined by the Executive Committee from time to time'. The definition of ‘academic freedom’ here is at the discretion of the leading body. What definition would find acceptable the dismissal of faculty members who criticise Israel’s military operations, as some of ECPR’s member institutions have done?

2 ECPR has chosen to take a stand in the past

Second, ECPR has a track record of taking a stand in previous crises. In 2022, it condemned Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and 'the grave threat this poses to all citizens, including members of our community'. The previous year, ECPR expressed its concern about the crisis in Afghanistan that saw the Taliban regain power. Thus, the question here is not, as the EC’s response suggests, why statements are not released on other crises if one is released on Gaza. Rather, it is why one is not released on Gaza when statements have been released on other crises?

3 An ECPR statement could help challenge the global crackdown on academic freedom

Third, ECPR evidently found such statements meaningful before. And, arguably, a statement now would be even more meaningful, given the instances of repression against students and academics voicing their solidarity with Gaza. ECPR taking a stand on this could meaningfully challenge this crackdown on academic freedom. It could also empower some of those who are now staying silent because of that.

4 Issuing a statement doesn't preclude taking practical measures

Fourth, the issuing of statements and taking more practical measures are not mutually exclusive. ECPR can do both. Indeed, issuing statements is a practical measure. Palestinian universities released a statement last November calling on academic institutions around the world to add their voice to those calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. When exploring ways 'to support scholars (in areas) affected by crisis', we should also consider what kind of support those scholars are calling for.

5 Issuing a statement would align with ECPR's core mission

Fifth, what does 'advancing political science as a discipline' (ECPR’s core mission) look like? What is political science for, after all? Is it merely to describe and analyse political phenomena? Or does it also have a normative dimension?

Normative mission

ECPR’s historic statements suggest that it shares my and many others’ belief that its mission does have a normative dimension. As the EC put it in relation to Ukraine, 'the protection of democracy is a principle enshrined in ECPR's mission'. This is not the time to abandon that normative commitment. Instead, ECPR should reinforce it by condemning the killing of civilians in Gaza and the repression against students and staff who have taken a stand against this tragedy unfolding before our eyes.

⛓️ No.7 in a Loop series examining constraints on academic freedom in a variety of global contexts

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Vladimir Bortun
Vladimir Bortun
Postdoctoral Fellow Researcher, University of Oxford

Vladimir is a critical political scientist interested in political elites, left parties, and transnational politics.

He currently works on the Changing Elites project, where he focuses on the impact of social background on the ideology and decision-making of power elites.

His work is rooted in a historical materialist approach and has been published in Journal of Common Market Studies, Capital & Class, and New Political Science.

Crisis, Austerity and Transnational Party Cooperation in Southern Europe
The Radical Left's Lost Decade

Crisis, Austerity and Transnational Party Cooperation in Southern Europe: The Radical Left's Lost Decade
Palgrave Macmillan, 2023


Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


One comment on “⛓️ What is political science for? A comment on ECPR’s silence over Gaza”

  1. Very sharp commentary, thank you for formulating it. A genocide is taking place in Palestine before our very eyes, perpetrated by a deranged and genocidal government, the Israeli one, which also defies and delegitimizes international rules. There are no universities left in Gaza. As academics, taking a stand should be the bare minimum.

Leave a Reply

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

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram