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When the physicist Stephen Hawking cited the academic boycott as his reason for canceling a trip to a conference in Israel last spring, an op-ed in The Guardian argued that the famous scientist's public stand “hits Israel where it hurts: science.” 

“[W]hat winds Israel up is the fact that this rejection is by a famous scientist and that science and technology drive its economy," wrote Hilary and Steven Rose, co-founders of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine. "Hawking's decision threatens to open a floodgate with more and more scientists coming to regard Israel as a pariah state.”

So far it's been more of a trickle than a flood. In the U.S., the academic boycott movement, which is aimed at pressuring Israel to change its policies vis-à-vis the occupation of the Palestinian territories, has achieved some symbolically significant victories in the past year. Both the Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association backed the boycott against Israeli universities, followed by the leadership council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. In science, however, the boycott movement has so far made comparatively few inroads.

“For us, it’s meaningless,” said Yair Rotstein, the executive director of the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), which was established in 1972 with an endowment funded by both countries. The boycott, he said, is something blown up in the media: for all practical purposes, “there really is no boycott.” Rotstein said that of about 7,000 requests to prospective external reviewers it sends each year, the foundation gets just one response on average from a scientist declining for political reasons.

Meanwhile, the BSF grants about $16 million in awards each year to American and Israeli scientists working on joint projects, having funded over the years, according to Rotstein, 42 Nobel Laureates. And since 2012, the BSF has partnered with the National Science Foundation to support collaborative research in biology, chemistry, computational neuroscience and computer science (The BSF gets an additional $3 million a year from the Israeli government to support these joint BSF-NSF projects.)

“The relations are widening,” Rotstein said.

“What’s happened in the last 10, 15, 20 years is that Israeli science has really come into its own,” said Al Teich, a research professor of science, technology, and international affairs at George Washington University. Teich is also the former director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a member of BSF’s board.

“The country has become a major scientific power, disproportionate to the size of the country and the size of the scientific establishment. Of course there are political ties, emotional ties, between the U.S. and Israel, but Israeli science is increasingly recognized throughout the world,” Teich said.

The joint Cornell University-Technion-Israel Institute of Technology campus being built in New York City was widely seen as a big step forward for the international reputation of Israeli science. And just last week Israel achieved recognition as the first non-European member nation of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in what Israel’s science, technology and space minister hailed in The Jerusalem Post as a case of scientific interests trumping political ones: “Israeli science continues to prove that it has the power to bridge the political disagreements we have with Europe,” Yaakov Peri said.  

Israel is also a participant in the European Union’s €80 billion (more than $109 billion) research funding program, Horizon 2020. For months it was unclear whether Israel would be able to join the massive research program after Israeli officials objected to new EU guidelines barring funding to entities and projects located outside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, specifically the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem  The two countries ultimately reached a compromise late last month, with the EU determining that it would attach an appendix stating the applicability of its guidelines while Israel would add its own appendix saying it disagreed with the guidelines on political and legal grounds. 

Steven Rose, the co-author of The Guardian op-ed on Hawking and an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the Open University, said he saw the EU’s “decision to reassert that it will not support any trading or research links with Israeli institutions with branches/locations in Occupied Palestine” – and the forcing of a compromise on this issue – as a positive sign for the boycott movement.

“[I]t is clear that the boycott campaign is beginning to bite,” Rose wrote in an email. “Much of it is manifest in quiet refusals by EU scientists to Israeli invitations. But some is more public. Witness the [American Studies Association’s] recent boycott vote – very clearly and succinctly worded.”

As far as science associations go, however, a spokeswoman for the largest American-based science association, AAAS, said that the group has not been approached about participating in the academic boycott movement. In 2006, the association released a statement condemning a proposed boycott resolution on the part of a British faculty union “as antithetical to the positive role of free scientific inquiry in improving the lives of all citizens of the world, and in promoting cooperation among nations, despite political differences.” 

The American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists issued a statement in July affirming “the principle of open scientific discourse and cooperation among scientists, regardless of nationality or political belief” and urging all academic organizations to refrain from any boycott of science and research.  

“Even during the worst days of the former Soviet Union, we certainly had physicists attend conferences all over the world; we never did anything in any way to inhibit the communication among scientists,” said Michael Lubell, the APS’s director of public affairs and the Mark W. Zemansky  professor of physics at the City College of New York. 

“Quite the contrary we believe that communication among scientists can actually advance issues within the foreign policy arena.”

David Klein, a professor of mathematics and director of the climate science program at California State University at Northridge, is a member of the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI). He doesn’t expect major science associations to back a boycott resolution any time soon: “the natural sciences and mathematics community are not very good on this issue,” he said. “There’s a dedication to Israel that is stronger than maybe in other fields.”

That said, Klein does expect an increasing number of scientists and mathematicians to individually endorse the boycott. Among the scholars who have signed their names to USACBI's call are Robert Trivers, a biologist at Rutgers University and a winner of the prestigious Crafoord Prize, the physicist Jean Bricmont, of Belgium’s Catholic University of Louvain, and the mathematician Ivar Ekeland, of the University of British Columbia.

Science’s relative disinterest in the boycott movement aside, “I think that the ASA endorsement of the academic boycott was extremely significant and I think it could lead to the normalization of this as a proposal and eventually maybe a university faculty senate endorsing the boycott,” Klein said. “But I think there’s an intermediary stepping stone for that to happen, which is for more student governments to endorse the boycott. Several already have.”

Samuel M. Edelman, the executive director of the Center for Academic Engagement and faculty affairs adviser for the Israel on Campus Coalition, argued, however, that the academic boycott movement has to date targeted “the low-hanging fruit -- easy, susceptible organizations that are really fairly marginal in academia.”

By contrast there's not much inclination toward a boycott, Edelman said, in “the larger professional organizations that have very strong ties with Israeli colleagues and Israeli institutions, especially in the STEM fields, in science, technology, engineering, and medicine and also business and law. There are strong institutional connections and there are many, many thousands of individual joint faculty research projects between American faculty and Israeli faculty.”

Supporters of Israeli higher education are pointing to the many scientific ties in the current fight over the boycott. An ad campaign against the boycott, scheduled to start today in The New York Times, has the headline: "Boycott a Cure for Cancer? Stop Drip Irrigation in Africa? Prevent Scientific Cooperation Between Nations?" The ad goes on to denounce the American Studies Association and to highlight research at Israeli universities that has led to drugs in the United States to treat Alzheimer's, cancer, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

A "U.S.-Israel Innovation Index" released last month by the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation attempts to quantify the scope of research collaboration between the two countries. “As we talk about U.S.-Israel relationships in light of some of the policies of academic institutions, the fact that they ought to be focused on is as of 2010, 2,259 co-authored scientific publications came out between the U.S. and Israel,” said Ann Liebschutz, the foundation’s executive director.

“This is what matters.”


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