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Academics in war of words over calls to boycott Israel

Owen Bowcott
May 27, 2002

US-based scientist hits out at moves to block cash for universities

A campaign to suspend European Union funding of Israel's universities, launched in a letter to the Guardian, has been countered by the mobilisation of academics denouncing the appeasement of terrorism and warning against the rise of anti-semitism.

Two of the chief participants are Steven Rose, director of the Brain and Behaviour Research Group at the Open University, and Leonid Ryzhik, a mathematics lecturer at Chicago University; both are Jewish.

Professor Rose believes the only way to bring peace to the Middle East, and stability to a world increasingly polarised along the lines of pro- and anti-Islam, is to force Israel to halt its "violent repression" and accept the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

In targeting universities, Prof Rose, some of whose relatives died in the Holocaust, explained that Israelis valued intellectual life, so the threat of academic isolation was a stinging rebuke.

His letter to the Guardian last month, signed by 125 prominent academics, observed that "the Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders ... However, there are ways of exerting pressure from within Europe.

"Many ... research institutions, including those funded from the EU and the European Science Foundation, regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants. Would it not therefore be timely if ... a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians?"

The Association of University teachers (AUT) has adopted a resolution echoing Professor Rose's call. The higher eduction teachers' union, NATFHE, has urged colleges to "review - with a view to severing - any academic links they may have with Israel".

Academia is only the latest battleground. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which models itself on anti-apartheid activities, called for a boycott of Israeli produce last July. Before Christmas, it convinced Harrods and Selfridges to withdraw from sale a range of halva and wines. The stores subsequently reinstated them.

An arms embargo has been urged which would involve a ban on sales and on purchases of weapons such as Israel's unmanned military drones.

Such demands have had little impact. The EU commissioner for research, Philippe Busquin, dismissed a petition supporting Prof Rose's moratorium. "The European Commission is not in favour of ... sanctions against parties to the conflict but advocates continuous dialogue ... which is the best way to negotiations," he wrote.

Suspending ties would be counter-productive because of the "very positive effects [of] scientific co-operation ... between European, Israeli and Palestinian institutions. This co-operation, which addresses critical regional issues such as water management, is a concrete example of dialogue ... more effective than many well-intentioned words".

Dr Ryzhik, who was born in Moscow, has organised a website to marshal opponents of Prof Rose's initiative. So far he has attracted the signature of 2,200 academics, including two Nobel prize winners.

In a letter to the Guardian this month, Dr Ryzhik and colleagues declared: "Some academics have called for a cultural and scientific boycott of Israel. We believe this is immoral, dangerous and misguided, and indirectly encourages the terrorist murderers in their deadly deeds."

Speaking from Chicago last week, he said: "We have had calls for boycotts [of Israeli goods] in the States and pressure on colleges to divest themselves of any financial holdings in Israel - the type of protests used against South Africa in anti-apartheid campaigns.

"But science is not a political matter. Even during the cold war and in the anti-apartheid era, lecturers from Russia and South Africa would meet at international conferences. There was no boycott of science. The University of Lille, in France, for example, has now refused to cooperate with any Israeli institution."

The Board of Deputies of British Jews is even more alarmed. "Surely the role of an academic is to find out the facts?" said Fiona Macaulay, the organisation's public affairs director. "Students should not be manipulated by pro-Palestinian propaganda."

The Union of Jewish Students warned that the debate was making life difficult for Jewish students. "There have been more physical and verbal attacks," said Clive Gabay, the campaigns director.