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Don't boycott Israel's scientists

A petition urging European institutions to initiate moratoria against scientific collaboration with Israel has sparked further petitions and counter-petitions. Such boycotts are misguided and should be opposed in favour of constructive initiatives.

Science is less political than other issues, and is a bridge for peace. That is what Leah Boehm, then chief scientist at Israel's science ministry, enthusiastically told Nature in 1995. Then, Israeli and Palestinian researchers were optimistic that the peace process would cause funds to flow to joint Arab-Israeli projects from the international community, reinforcing peace by contributing to dialogue, and boosting research in the region to better manage water and other scarce local resources, protect the environment and fight disease.

Subsequent events have left these noble aspirations in tatters. If the world's scientific community can do anything to encourage Middle-East peace they should jump at it. Unfortunately, initiatives taken by some academics are running counter to these aims. Steven and Hilary Rose, from Britain's Open University, instigated a petition in a UK newspaper, The Guardian, calling for a European boycott of research and cultural links with Israel until the latter “abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians”. Some 300 academics have already signed this petition, while broader boycott initiatives have since sprung up in France and several other countries.

Ariel Sharon has already defied the United Nations and most of the international community; it is naive to think he is going to lose a moment's sleep over his country's researchers being turned into pariahs. More importantly, as is summed up well in many of the responses and counter-petitions that have been launched (see, for example, http://euroisrael.huji.ac.il/news.html and the Correspondence on page 15 of this issue), the concept of a research boycott restricts channels that are better kept open. Ironically, the majority of Israeli scientists are on the political left and support the peace process. Why should they be punished for the excesses of their political leaders?

The boycott is also partisan. Scientists have as much right to express their diverse views on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as other citizens, but the 'logic' of politically motivated boycotts is too readily extensible to the point of absurdity — should we also boycott Palestinian researchers because the Palestinian Authority has not done enough to prevent suicide bombers?

Many Israeli scientists are open to collaboration with Palestinian and other Arab scientists. Take the joint graduate programme between Tel Aviv University and Bethlehem University involving geneticist Mary-Claire King at the University of Washington. This project is looking at the genetic origins of deafness, and the Middle East is ideal for such research, as rich pedigrees are available because marrying close relatives is unusually common. Moreover, Bethlehem researchers have spent time in King's laboratory, bringing back new skills to Palestine. King, who knows the realities on the ground, opposes the boycott, arguing that the three-way collaboration is an example of a successful effort to maintain such constructive contact.

This is just one example of partnerships involving Israel, its neighbours and scientists in Europe or the United States. Israel is a research powerhouse that, given an eventual improvement of relations with its neighbours, could rejuvenate science and development in the region through collaboration and training. Rather than signing boycotts, which will achieve nothing, researchers worldwide can help the peace process concretely by actively initiating more of such three-way collaborations — and encouraging their institutions to do the same.

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Don't boycott Israel's scientists. Nature 417, 1 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/417001a

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