Promoting science in Israel, Europe and the UK

Israeli academics who avoid cooperative projects with European universities are unwittingly playing into the hands of those who want to sever ties with Israel.

Scientist 311 (photo credit: Marretao22/Wikimedia Commons)
Scientist 311
(photo credit: Marretao22/Wikimedia Commons)
Last week saw the inauguration of the European Association for Israel Studies (EAIS) with an academic conference held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Almost 100 academic faculty from throughout Europe, all of whom are involved in researching and teaching different aspects of Israeli society, politics, culture and history, came together, to share their ideas and, most importantly, to establish a network of scholars stretching from Iberia to Siberia. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Professor Derek Penslar, soon to become the first Chair for Israel Studies at St. Anne’s College at Oxford University.
The past few years have witnessed a major growth in the academic study of Israel. Europe has been keen to follow the American example and have academic chairs and centers that focus on Israel, not least because of the negative impression which has been created concerning the anti- Israel sentiment which has evolved on some European campuses, along with a growing, albeit ineffective, call for an academic boycott of Israel and Israeli scientists.
Prominent new centers for Israel Studies have been established at such diverse places as the universities of Sussex, London and Manchester.
Unfortunately, the Oxford Chair at the Yarnton Center for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies was recently downgraded from a full chair to a research fellowship following the departure of an Italian scholar, Professor Rafaella del Sartori, who will continue to promote EAIS from her new post at the European University Institute in Florence.
It is not clear whether this renewed and intense interest in the study of Israel is a direct reaction to the negative press which Israel has been receiving on campuses and whether it is meant to operate as a sort of counter-advocacy promoting Israel, or whether it is meant to provide a greater balance in the research and debate about Israel on European and UK campuses.
It would be wrong if the preference is for the former rather than the latter, and it is notable that the inaugural conference of the EAIS made it clear that they are interested in Israel Studies advocacy rather than Israel advocacy.
This emphasis will enable many diverse and critical voices concerning Israeli society, politics and history to be part of the debate. Academic discourse is about creating balanced debate, rather than blindly following a particular political position, and it is essential that if Israel Studies is to be worthy of its academic calling, it brings in a diverse group of scholars – both in terms of their disciplines and the nature of the political critique and enquiry.
THE SAME week as the EAIS conference, a dinner was held in London, in the presence of both the British Ambassador to Israel, Mr.
Matthew Gould, and Israel’s new ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr. Daniel Taub, to honor the first anniversary of the Israeli – Britain Research Cooperation program (BIRAX) which brings Israeli and British scholars together for joint seed research leading to larger research projects and increased bilateral cooperation in the future.
Unlike EAIS, which largely focuses on the social sciences and the humanities and which concentrates on Israeli society, BIRAX has opted to expend its energies in the life sciences, not necessarily related to Israel per se, but bringing Israeli scholarship and academic excellence to the fore.
Future programs are also expected to take off, as the two governments decide to expand their scientific exchange and cooperation and as relevant private donors are identified who are prepared to fund these projects.
Much of the bilateral funding of scientific activity between the UK and European countries has, in recent years, been transferred along with all such bilateral funding to the European Union – which partially explains the large funding sources which are available in Brussels, and in which Israeli scholars and universities have been highly successful in competing for research funding.
But in the case of Britain, given the loud pro-boycott voices which have been so vociferous over the past decade, the British government has opted to formally support the new projects such as BIRAX, if only to demonstrate that scientific exchange and cooperation should not, in any way, be affected by the political preferences (pro-Israel or pro-Palestine) of the academic unions.
Opportunities for Israeli scholars and students to undertake their research in Europe and the UK are widespread, but compared to many other countries, few Israelis take advantage of the opportunity to study at some of the top universities in the world.
This is partially due to a lack of financial resources and scholarships, but also due to an increasing reticence among Israeli students and faculty to travel to countries where they believe they would encounter unfriendly or even antagonistic attitudes. Not only is this an exaggeration of the reality, but the reticence of Israelis to go to the UK is, in fact, the only real act of boycotting – a form of voluntary self-boycott – that the misguided political activists within the British academic unions have been able to achieve.
Scientific knowledge is all about mutual enrichment and understanding of complex processes, be it in the social sciences or the hard life sciences such as physics or medicine. Israel and Britain, along with most other European countries, are home to some of the world’s leading scientific institutes.
Bringing scholars together across the national and political divide, regardless of their specific political views and beliefs, is to the benefit of all the countries involved. It is to be hoped that the activity of recent years, partly in reaction to the calls for boycott, will continue to expand, not just as political activism, but as a means of bringing a greater understanding and balance to the complex relations between Israel and her European academic partners.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.