Any contact between Israeli and Palestinian academics furthers the peace process - and boycotts can only impede this, scholars told Chris Bunting
In October 2000, as they watched news coverage of the outbreak of the second intifada at a conference in Philadelphia, the Palestinian geneticist Moien Kanaan turned to his Israeli collaborator Karen Avraham and Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington, and said: "We should say all of the things we need to say to each other now because we won't see each other for some time."
The three are principal partners in one of the world's most exciting human genetics programmes, using rich genetic data among the large and intermarried extended families of the Middle East to identify the genes behind deafness.
Since Kanaan's prophetic warning, their collaboration, which has helped isolate four genes associated with hearing loss and has been published in the world's leading journals, has hit huge difficulties. Simply moving between Kanaan's laboratory at Bethlehem University and Avraham's laboratory at Tel Aviv University, where a joint graduate programme set up around the collaboration is supposed to be based, is next to impossible. Their first Palestinian doctoral student, Hashem Shahin, has spent two years stranded in the occupied territories, unable to get a permit to attend classes in Israel.
Laboratory reagents have to pass through checkpoints. A vital shipment of DNA sent by King to Bethlehem by courier was confiscated by Israeli customs officials, who would not release it even when shown letters from the Palestinian Ministry of Health. When Israel's army invaded Bethlehem in April, Kanaan's lab had to be evacuated. Months of work on cell lines was lost.
But what has surprised the three academics most has been to have the basic principle of their collaboration challenged, not from within Israel or Palestine, but by the international academic community itself. Calls among academics in Europe and, less noisily, in the US for a boycott of Israeli academia buzz around a project that King says is fostering positive ties between Jew and Arab.
"There have been enormous problems put in our way, but the project has flourished. We have had extraordinary help from academics on both sides of the conflict and indeed from government people on both sides. Hashem has just now been given a permit to go back to Tel Aviv, which has taken the intervention from really quite senior people in the Israeli government.
"There are some really easy calls on the politics of science and this is one of them. I see no earthly reason why failed political leadership should preclude scientists getting on with teaching our students that internationalism is fundamental to what we do," says King, who has a proud history of engagement in US civil rights protests and human rights work in Chile and Argentina.
"Every time a question like this comes up, a person of conscience must decide whether the best action is protest and withdrawal or engagement. I am absolutely convinced, in this case, that working with good scientists in both countries is what we need to do."
The human genetics project is one of dozens of collaborative schemes involving Israeli and Palestinian academics that have begun to poke their heads through the permafrost of Middle East relations just as European academics discuss isolating Israeli academia. Cooperation spans subjects including water conservation, agricultural research, medical training and public health programmes, public opinion research and joint publications on the recent history of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
"It is stupid," says Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israeli peace activist and co-director of the Israeli Palestinian Center for Research and Information, a public policy think-tank run jointly by Jews and Arabs. "The people who are choosing to boycott Israeli academics have got the wrong target. In general, academics in Israel represent those very people who are still supporting cooperation with the Palestinians. The European Union itself has just completed a call for collaborative research. They have more than 100 partnership proposals."
Although all Palestinian universities maintain an official ban on links with Israel, a network of informal ties between academics persists. Jerusalem's Arab university Al-Quds, under the charismatic leadership of Sari Nusseibeh, an Oxford-trained philosopher who combines his role as president of the university with being the Palestinian Authority's chief spokesman in the city, has been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen cooperation, while Bethlehem and Hebron universities have begun to work in the same direction. A network of Palestinian and Israeli non-governmental organisations often works as a discrete conduit for communication.
Walid Salem, director in Jerusalem of Panorama, one of the Palestinian NGOs involved, says academic dialogue, involving an active minority of Palestinian academics, has always had an important place in the peace process: "One of the secrets of Israeli-Palestinian relations is that contacts first began with the academics in the late 1970s. People such as Nusseibeh and Salim Tamari were involved as academics at that time and that helped pave the way for the politicians in the mid-1980s. Before that, the only real contacts had been between leftwing organisations.
"We can really talk about two tracks of negotiation: the official track and a second track involving civil society group contacts including academics. The first track is not working at the moment but the second track is still alive, although it has gone more behind the scenes."
Asked if he supports a boycott of Israeli academics, he says he would exempt two groups: "First, those who call for peace and negotiation and, second, those who are neutral. The group I could not work with are those who talk about openly racist ideas. It's not so much a boycott; I would just have nothing to talk to them about."
Paul Scham, research fellow at the Truman Institute at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, made a study of burgeoning joint research activity before the outbreak of the second intifada, identifying more than 133 Palestinian-Israeli projects and 84 involving other Arab partners. Roughly a third were in the social sciences and education while the rest spanned a wide variety of scientific and medical research.
"For about a year after the intifada it was difficult to work with Palestinians except by maintaining some kind of correspondence but there was then a noticeable shift from about December 2001. Palestinians realised that severing all relations with Israel was not working.
"From that point, my frequent-flyer points started accumulating for meetings with Palestinians abroad, but that also coincided with the virtual hermetic sealing of Israel's borders. The practical possibility of doing projects except in Jerusalem is still severely limited, but I think many Palestinian academics believe they are keeping a lifeline going by maintaining contact with us. We will have to cooperate in the end."
Scham says western academics might make themselves feel better by dissociating themselves from Israeli collaborators, but he warns they would be out of step with an increasingly significant part of Palestinian opinion. "They would also do huge damage with no positive benefit," he says.
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Two views on the academic boycott of Israel. Do you think the boycott is justified? Have your say at www.thes.co.uk/commonroom