Leading Oxford Scientists Condemn Academic Boycotts Targeting Israel

As debate rages across Europe over efforts to boycott Israeli academics, a group of leading Oxford University scientists plans to condemn academic boycotts based on nationality.

In an article in the journal Nature that is to be published on Thursday, the group will say it is unequivocally opposed to such actions.

Two of the scholars, Richard Dawkins and Colin Blakemore, previously have been associated with calls to boycott Israeli academics.

They wrote last month in England’s Guardian newspaper that they were “dismayed to be implicated, entirely against our intentions,” with the boycott.

The two met fellow scholars Michael Yudkin and Denis Noble for a series of discussions on the principle of academic boycotts.

Yudkin, an Oxford biologist who is Jewish, told JTA that he “was prompted to set up the study group” that produced the paper “by the call for an academic boycott of Israel last spring.”

Separately, two Israeli scholars based at King’s College London are prodding a section of the Linguistic Society of America to pass a strong anti-boycott resolution.

Shalom Lappin and Jonathan Ginzburg have collected more than 225 signatures on a petition “calling on our colleagues to oppose this and all other academic boycotts.”

The Linguistic Society currently is polling its entire membership on the anti-boycott motion, Lappin told JTA.

The controversy began last April, when more than 100 academics signed a letter proposing a boycott of Israeli scholars, to protest Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

Steven and Hilary Rose, a husband-and-wife team, launched the boycott movement with a letter in the Guardian.

After simmering for several weeks, the issue burst into flame when Mona Baker, a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, removed two Israelis from the editorial boards of journals she edits.

The two Israelis, Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan University and Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University, both are vocal critics of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Shlesinger has chaired the Israeli branch of Amnesty International.

In fact, Israeli academics have been at the forefront of domestic criticism of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians.

Baker, who was born in Egypt, expressed regret that her action would cause “some amount of inconvenience and distress” for “Israelis who are not directly responsible for Israeli state policies.”

She later claimed that the boycott was directed not against individuals but institutions.

But Lappin and Ginzburg — who describe themselves as “strong opponents of Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem” — dismissed her explanations.

“Academic boycotts in general and Dr. Baker’s mode of observing this one in particular are entirely unacceptable,” their petition says.

Such boycotts “target people without reference to their views or actions, but solely on the basis of the fact that they live and work in a particular country.

“In this respect academic boycotts are no less racist than the exclusionary policies they purport to oppose,” it adds.

A number of other top British scholars and institutions have criticized the boycott effort.

The British Medical Journal condemned it in the strongest possible terms in its first issue of 2003.

“The BMJ deplores these actions and does not support any sort of boycott,” editor in chief Richard Smith wrote. “Our position is based primarily on support for the ‘universality of science,’ ” which “explicitly rules out boycotts on the basis of citizenship, gender, religion or color.”

Lady Susan Greenfield, who heads the Royal Institution, Britain’s oldest independent research body, warned last month that a successful boycott actually could cost lives.

“If this is stopping medical research from being propagated, then the development of treatments could be affected,” Greenfield, a neurobiologist, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

“If it continues it will harm people in every sphere, but in medical research lives are potentially at risk,” she said. “What are they trying to achieve by doing this? It is a situation where everyone loses.”

One leading Israeli academic said the boycott movement had had little effect on his work or that of his colleagues.

“Personally I have not encountered any boycott. None of my colleagues has,” Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin- Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told JTA. “I just participated in an international conference at the university where there were Brits, Spaniards and Germans.”

Outside of England, a Paris university recently was forced to reverse itself over a planned boycott of Israeli institutions.

Paris VI University adopted a motion in December calling for the suspension of scientific cooperation agreements with Israeli academics.

Some 20,000 people signed a petition against the boycott by Paris VI. The university’s administrative council ultimately changed course following protests by the French Union of Jewish Students, the League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, and CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewry.

In Britain, meanwhile, the Musicians Union was scheduled to consider a boycott motion against Israelis on Jan. 20. A union official told JTA that it was a private member’s motion.

If approved by the union’s central London branch, it would then be considered by the national executive of the union.

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