LONDON (Jul. 8)
An Oxford University professor could be fired after rejecting a graduate student because he is Israeli.
Andrew Wilkie, a professor of pathology, dismissed an application from Amit Duvshani to work in his laboratory in late June, partly on the grounds that the Tel Aviv University student had done his mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces.
“I am sure you are perfectly nice at a personal level, but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army,” Wilkie wrote Duvshani in an e-mail that has been widely circulated.
Wilkie accused Israel of gross human rights abuses against the Palestinians, even citing the Holocaust in his argument.
“As you may be aware, I am not the only U.K. scientist with these views, but I’m sure you will find another suitable lab if you look around,” the e-mail concluded.
Israel supporters from New York to Tel Aviv responded with outrage.
In London, the Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization representing most British Jews protested to Oxford.
“Oxford University is expected to be a place where ideas are freely upheld and exchanged,” board President Henry Grunwald wrote to Sir Colin Lucas, Oxford’s vice-chancellor. “This cannot happen if there remains any scope for refusing to admit or hire someone on the basis of their nationality, religion or race,” Grunwald said.
Andy Marks, founder and director of the International Academic Friends of Israel, said such “blatant discrimination against a scientist based on his nationality is a dangerous threat to academic and scientific freedom.”
The group was formed to fight against a boycott of Israeli academics by British academics, which has been the subject of fierce international debate since it was launched last summer.
Baroness Susan Greenfield, a neurobiologist and director of Britain’s Royal Institution, has campaigned against the boycott.
She said the controversy over Wilkie’s comments underscores the seriousness of the boycott movement in Britain.
“This will show that it’s something that’s real,” she told JTA. “It’s not just a flash in the pan.”
Although a British academic union rejected a boycott motion at its annual conference in May by a vote of two to one, “that still means a third voted for it,” she noted.
Oxford University was quick to distance itself from Wilkie’s move, describing itself as “appalled that any member of its staff should have responded to an inquiry from a potential graduate student in the terms in which Professor Wilkie e-mailed Amit Duvshani.”
Wilkie apologized for “any distress” his e-mail caused, and said the inclusion of his “personal opinions” was “wholly inappropriate.”
“I entirely accept the University of Oxford’s Equal Opportunities and Race Equality Policies,” he said in a public statement.
Despite Wilkie’s apology, Oxford convened a special disciplinary committee last Friday.
The Visitatorial Board, as it is called, has the power to recommend that Wilkie be dismissed. It could also recommend a lighter punishment, such as a warning.
Wilkie has four weeks to present his case in writing to the committee, which consists of four Oxford staff members chaired by an outsider. He also has the right to appear before the board in person.
He will not take part in selection of Oxford students or staff while the board is considering the case.
Only one other Visitatorial Board has been convened at Oxford in the past year, a university spokesman said.
The Board of Deputies welcomed Oxford’s move, telling JTA it was “gratifying to hear that the case is being taken so seriously.”
Wilkie did not respond to JTA requests for comment.
But Sue Blackwell, a boycott supporter who teaches in the English department at the University of Birmingham, said Wilkie’s apology should be the end of the matter.
“I understand that Prof. Wilkie has now apologized to the student and withdrawn his original position of refusing him a place in his lab,” she told JTA via e-mail.
“I don’t see what he had to apologize for in the first place, but especially in view of his apology it is completely unacceptable that the University of Oxford should be considering disciplinary action against him,” she added.
Blackwell, who proposed the boycott motion that the academic union rejected this spring, highlighted the fact that Wilkie referred specifically to Duvshani’s army service in rejecting him.
“This is an important issue because doing military service involves supporting the occupation either directly or indirectly, and for this reason a growing number of young Israelis are refusing to do their initial period of service or to become reservists,” she said.
“Israelis who have not done military service are unlikely to be considered for most jobs, which thus excludes most Israeli Arabs as well as the ‘refuseniks,’ ” she said. “So this single act of ‘discrimination’ against a student who has done his military service in Israel has to be seen in the context of the institutional discrimination in Israel against anyone who has not done military service.”
There have been concerns that the boycott movement could attempt to portray Wilkie as a martyr, but anti-boycott campaigner Greenfield said she doubted such a defense would be convincing.
“Were he to be punished, I can’t see how anyone could condemn it,” she said. “I can’t see how” his e-mail “could not be racism.”
Greenfield said she was amazed that Wilkie — whom she does not know personally — had sent such comments by e- mail.
“Sometimes people fire off e-mails without thinking them through,” she said. “That is one of the reasons I oppose the boycott.”
Forwarding e-mails asking colleagues to refuse to work with Israelis, she said, can give people “a misguided and rather superficial feeling of being liberal.”