Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of writing about the successful BIRAX
scientific cooperation between Israeli and UK universities. The context was not
only the promotion of intellectual cooperation, but also the response to those
who would boycott scientific ties because of the political situation as it
relates to Israel, the West Bank and the status of the Palestinians.
week, we have another story of scientific cooperation threatened with boycott.
The University of Johannesburg in South Africa threatened to cancel a scientific
cooperation program with Ben-Gurion University – an agreement which was signed
only one year ago, and which focuses on areas of cooperation in biotechnology
and water purification, to the benefit of all.
At last week’s meeting of
the university senate in Johannesburg, a sort of compromise agreement was
reached. An immediate boycott proposal was not passed, but the university made
further cooperation and the renewal of the agreement dependent on the expansion
of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian universities.
The past 15
years have witnessed a great deal of scientific cooperation in diverse areas. I
could spend the rest of this column outlining some of the joint projects which
take place between Ben-Gurion faculty and both their Palestinian and Jordanian
counterparts – be it in medicine, environmental protection and even overtly
political issues such as human rights. But in doing so, I would be in danger of
harming many of these programs.
In most cases, it is the Palestinian side
which prefers to keep the project out of sight of the media. Important groups
within Palestinian civil society, such as trade unions and academics, are highly
critical of those who want to cooperate on a basis of equality when, in reality,
there is no equality – political or economic. They are uncomfortable with the
thought that through cooperation they are, de facto, legitimizing the
occupation. Palestinian academics who work with Israelis find the political
pressure to bow to the anti-intellectual logic of the boycott campaign difficult
to deal with.
By declaring a long list of cooperative projects, I also
fall into the trap of trying to prove myself (or the institution I represent) a
“good Jew,” one that can be legitimized for no other reason than the fact that I
work and sympathize with the “other” side, am opposed to occupation and promote
the universality of human rights and independence for all.
As much as I
hold these positions, they are not, for me, a litmus test through which Israeli
universities should, or should not, be made legitimate. Joint research is
carried out for the intrinsic reason of producing knowledge, not so the
researchers can be seen to be ideologically correct.
BOYCOTTS do nothing
to promote the interests of peace, human rights or – in the case of Israel – the
end of occupation. The “good Jew” response by BGU would accept the logic of the
academic boycott, but would argue for an exception for BGU on the basis that it
passed the political test – one which is only applied to Israel. In reality,
last week’s decision has given the pro-boycotters a sixmonth period to win
additional supporters, legitimizing the idea that academic boycotts are
And what about the countless attacks on Ben-Gurion
University faculty from right-wing groups such as Im Tirtzu and IsraCampus,
accusing us of dealing too much with Palestine- and occupation-related issues?
These groups would like nothing better than to prevent Israeli-Palestinian
The University of Johannesburg is, unwittingly,
strengthening the hand of these ultranationalist groups and, ironically, making
it even more difficult for cross-border dialogue and cooperation to take place.
The boycott campaign strengthens the rejectionists on both sides, and weakens
those building practical or political foundations for peace.
when there is a willingness to participate in joint ventures, it is not easy.
Israeli academics enjoy working conditions which can only be dreamed of by their
Palestinian colleagues. Meetings are never easy to arrange – Israelis are
forbidden to enter Area “A” where most of the Palestinian universities are, and
many are fearful of venturing into these areas even if they were
Palestinians coming to meetings in Israeli institutions have to
apply for transit permits weeks in advance, and are often refused or left
waiting until the last moment, when it is too late to make complex travel
Those of us who believe it is important to advance
scientific cooperation and build grassroots trust between the two scholarly
communities should not fool ourselves into thinking that the conditions faced by
the two groups are equal or symmetrical. They are not.
are all too often silent on the issue of access to higher education for
Palestinian students. As Israeli academics who believe in cooperation, we should
be the first to demand freedom of access for all Palestinian faculty and
students to their own institutions and to institutions elsewhere in the world –
with no more restrictions than those faced by us.
As in the case of BIRAX
and the British universities, our international colleagues should be doing
everything possible to expand the conditions under which Israeli- Palestinian
cooperation can take place.
I invite my colleague Adam Habib, vice
chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, to make good on his statement of
last week, when he said: “We believe in reconciliation...We’d like to
bring BGU and Palestinian universities together to produce a collective
engagement that benefits everyone.”
I can show him examples of where
universities around the world are hosting groups of Israeli and Palestinian
scholars who find it difficult to meet under local conditions.
example, the Olive Tree program at City University in London, where Israeli and
Palestinian students receive scholarships to spend three years studying for
undergraduate degrees and understanding each other. Or the Daniel Turnberg
Travel Fellowship Fund, which supports young medical researchers from Israel,
the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt who travel to the UK and spend a month in a
university or hospital, where they meet experts in their field and plan future
Or next month’s human rights workshop organized
by the Crucible Center at the University of Roehampton, where Israeli and
Palestinian scholars will discuss issues of common interest, beyond the
boundaries of the conflict which prevents them from doing this at
Habib is welcome to choose the topic, the cooperating institutions
and the relevant scholars. This would be a truly positive contribution by the
University of Johannesburg to promoting the values it touted last week. And
considering its own country, which was transformed into a new and equal society
during the past two decades, who better to lead the world’s academic community
in trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian scholars together? The writer is dean
of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.