split over boycott of Israel
By Peter Foster
Daily Telegraph (UK)
16 May 2002
A growing number of research bodies are calling
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]
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
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
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
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
"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
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."