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Academia split over boycott of Israel

By Peter Foster
Daily Telegraph (UK)
16 May 2002

A growing number of research bodies are calling for a
boycott of links with Israel because of the Middle East conflict.


The request for co-operation between respected research scientists was routine; it had been granted several times before. Could the Norwegian Veterinary School send a DNA clone sample to be used in gene therapy research at the Goldyne Savad Institute in Jerusalem?

It was the reply that caused shock and surprise. Unfortunately, due to Israeli military action on the West Bank and the closure of several Palestinian universities, the department head in Oslo felt unable to co-operate.

After spelling out these reasons, Prof Ingrid Harbitz politely concluded in an e-mail on April 22: "On this background I find it impossible for me to deliver any material to an Israelitic [sic] University."

It is a story indicative of an increasingly heated and divisive debate within international academia about the most appropriate way to respond to the crisis in the Middle East.

A growing number of academics are calling for a boycott of research and cultural links with Israel.

The idea was first floated in an open letter to the Guardian last month, signed by 120 university academics from 13 countries. The letter called for a suspension of European Union funding for Israeli institutions until the Sharon government agreed to "abide by UN resolutions and open serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians".

The petition, organised by Hilary and Steven Rose, professors at the City and the Open universities, proved the kindling for a debate that quickly took on the proportions of a wildfire.

The opposing camps set out their stalls on the internet, asking academics to sign rival petitions for and against a boycott. Passions on the issue have run high, with supporters of the boycott reporting that they have been bombarded with hate mail.

Prof Steven Rose, a Jew who lost family members in the Holocaust, said his uninvited correspondents had called him a "self-hating Jew", anti-Semite and even "sonderkommando", the name given to concentration camp inmates who collaborated with the Nazis.

Proponents of a boycott, such as Colin Blakemore, the Oxford professor who has twice been targeted by animal rights terrorists because of his research, argue that it has become a "moral" necessity.

"It is a symbolic gesture that says that if Israel wants to remain a part of the discourse of the civilised world then it must behave in accordance with the norms of that world," he said.

"I signed reluctantly, always fearful that it might counter-productive. But recent events make me more and more confident that I was right."

Prof Hilary Rose compares an academic boycott of Israel with the sporting boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era. "Sporting isolation hurt South Africa and ultimately contributed to the end of that regime. I don't think Israel values sport but it does value science and high culture.

"The reason we did this was because we had become so exhausted by the horror of what is going on in Israel and occupied territories. It is a means of civil society expressing its disquiet."

Opponents of the boycott are equally certain of their ground. A rival petition, signed by an equally distinguished and international list of academics, sets out a six-point rebuttal of the boycott.

Organised by Dr Aaron Benavot at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, it argues that a boycott would be a blunt instrument, "castigating" the very people - Israeli academics - who have worked to foster co-operation with the Palestinian people through joint scientific projects.

It would also run contrary to the "concept of freedom" on which academic dialogue is based and "unfairly" identifies Israel as the only party responsible for the current escalation of violence.

Some notable figures have been persuaded by such arguments, which were supported by an editorial this month in the periodical Nature.

Richard Dawkins, the Oxford professor for the public understanding of science, said he now "regretted" signing the Guardian letter.

"While I remain opposed to Israel's actions, I have had second thoughts about whether a boycott is the right way to censure Israel. The fear is that it would be counter-productive," he said.

Philippe Busquin, the EU commissioner for research, has also rejected a boycott, arguing that a "continuous dialogue", not sanctions, is the best way to bring the parties to the negotiating table.

However, there is growing evidence that many academics are pressing ahead at an unofficial level.

Prof Steven Rose told The Daily Telegraph: "Individuals may choose to act in a way that makes their moral repugnance at Israel's behaviour clear."

In Jerusalem, Dr Benavot said there was increasing anecdotal evidence of an unofficial boycott.

"Two colleagues in the geography department, for example, received a letter from the section editor of an international journal who said he was unable to consider their papers because he was a signatory to the boycott.

"Another Israeli scholar in London was told by his co-ordinator that he could 'foresee problems' with colleagues in Europe if he joined an EU-funded research team.

"It is a real problem - how widespread I cannot say - but I expect it will continue."