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Saturday, June 14, 2003
Boycott of Israeli scientists sparks debate, dissent, and subtle unexpected effects

Mixing Science and Politics: Boycott of Israeli scientists sparks debate,
dissent, and subtle unexpected effects
By Catherine Zandonella The Scientist Volume 17 Issue 12 39 Jun. 16,

Joel Hirsch, an Israeli biochemist at Tel Aviv University, has one more
thing to worry about when he submits a scientific paper for publication: the
possibility that scientists who disagree with his country's policies will
shun his work. "My nightmare scenario is that the paper gets sent to a
reviewer who might have an axe to grind about Israeli scientists," Hirsch

In the year since some British researchers called for a boycott of Israeli
scientists, funding agencies have largely rejected such appeals. A subtler,
possibly no less-damaging kind of boycott has surfaced, in which researchers
express their outrage with the Israeli government by refusing to interact
with Israeli scientists. As a result, when a talk is canceled, or a faculty
member receives no reply from a European colleague, Israeli scientists can't
help but think the worst. "I can't be sure if it was because I am Israeli,"
says Orly Reiner, a neuroscientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in
Rehovot, about the cancellation of her invited talk at a research conference
in France.

SENDING THE WRONG MESSAGE? No one knows how many quiet acts of protest
Israeli scientists endure. Nevertheless, boycotts galvanize scientists into
political camps and provide endless fodder for the debate over scientists'
roles in politics. Boycotters say it is morally wrong to sit on the
sidelines. Opponents say that science should sit above politics. "Any
boycott that impedes the open flow of information is akin to book burning,"
says Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Critics of the boycott, who nevertheless agree with its goals, say it is
unlikely to change Israeli policies, and it may backfire. "The boycott sends
the wrong message because it breeds resentment," says Idan Segev, the David
& Inez Myers Chair in Computational Neuroscience at Hebrew University,
Jerusalem. "We should be focusing our anger at the Israeli government." He
says academics can be outspoken critics of the government. "Scientists are
the last people you want to boycott."

This is especially true in the current political climate, many Israelis say,
because of what some describe as an anti-intellectual bent to the government
led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Minister of Education, Limor Livnat,
has been locked in a power struggle with academic leaders for more than a

Emanuel Farjoun is one of ten Israeli scientists who signed the original
petition calling for the boycott. "I think international pressure should be
put on Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians," says Farjoun, a
mathematician at Hebrew University. Nevertheless, Farjoun believes
scientists should not act individually. "Scientists should collaborate on an
individual level with colleagues all over the world, regardless of the
government under which they live," Farjoun says.

But those who support the boycott say that such action is one of few avenues
open to scientists who wish to dissent. Palestinian scientists express
particular concern. Mazin Qumsiyeh, associate professor of genetics at Yale
University, says a boycott against Israeli science may have its downsides,
but the situation requires a radical intervention. "It is like the patient
is dying of cancer and you are saying that we cannot ask for major radiation
or therapy because it might inconvenience the patient." Qumsiyeh's parents
live in the occupied West Bank.

THE BOYCOTT'S EFFECT Boycott instigators say that they did not expect a
direct effect. "I never assumed the boycott, as such, would actually change
the policies of the Israeli government," says Steven Rose, director of the
Brain and Behaviour Research Group at The Open University, UK, who initiated
the call for a boycott with his wife Hilary Rose, then a professor of
sociology at City University, London. "We wanted to make a protest and raise
the issue, and in that sense the effect has been quite dramatic, far more
than what we anticipated."

The Roses' petition, which appeared in the London newspaper The Guardian,
called for the European Union and the European Science Foundation (ESF) to
impose a moratorium on funding until Israel abides by United Nations
resolutions and opens peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Israeli
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently endorsed a road map for peace, which is
supported by the United Nations, European Union, United States, and Russia.2

The petition sparked a few widely publicized incidents. A gene therapy
researcher who requested a plasmid from a Norwegian researcher received a
reply saying: "Due to the present situation in the Middle East, I will not
deliver any material to an Israelitic [sic] university." In another
incident, two Israeli reviewers at the Journal of Translation were asked to
resign. Rose is not bothered that the call for what was essentially an
economic boycott has acquired a more personal nature. "This is an act of
individuals," says Rose, adding that he refuses to review grant applications
from Israelis or to cosponsor meetings with Israeli academics.

The funding denials and outright sanctions have failed to materialize. The
ESF rejected the suggestion that it stop funding Israeli scientists, and
petitioners did not try to persuade US science agencies to consider such a
move. Members of Britain's two university teachers' unions, both of which
originally supported the boycott, reconsidered the issue and voted down
boycott resolutions in May.

The issue remains active on France's university campuses. Several
universities have passed resolutions calling for the European Union to
suspend funding of Israeli scientists. Some of these were later rescinded
after prominent scientists protested. The French Ministry of Science, in a
move designed to show support for Israeli science, signed a new cooperative
agreement with Israel in April.

Even if the threats to the overall pursuit of science do not materialize,
the boycott could chip away at the quality of science in Israel. Since the
beginning of the recent unrest in Israel two years ago, the number of
scientists visiting Israel has fallen, due mainly to fears for personal
safety, says Andrew Marks, director of the Center for Molecular Cardiology
at Columbia University and founder of an antiboycott group called
International Academic Friends of Israel. Younger scientists are the most
vulnerable because they depend on getting papers published and meeting
influential leaders in their disciplines. Marks' group is helping organize a
stem cell conference in Israel during the month of June.

Some scientists assert that Israeli academics are not doing enough to bring
about a peaceful solution to their country's crisis. "South African
academics were much more active in protesting the apartheid government than
what I've seen from my Israeli colleagues," says Rodney Douglas, a South
African and the director of the Institute of Neuroinformatics in Zurich. "In
matters of such importance, one must make a stand."

The worst danger is not to individual Israeli scientists, boycott opponents
say, but rather to the culture of open communication among researchers.
Scientists like Segev, Marks, and Greenfield want scientific work to be
judged on its merits, not on the basis of the researcher's citizenship. Any
boycott or other action that puts such confidence in jeopardy has the
potential to do lasting damage, the opponents say, not just to its intended
target, but to the field of science itself.

Catherine Zandonella is a freelance writer in New York City.

1. A. Shavit, "Academia nuts," Haaretz, 2002.

2. H. Morris, "Israeli reservations on peace plan unveiled," The Financial
Times, May 27, 2003, p. 1.

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