Jewish laureate calls off UK visit

May 25, 2007

A Nobel laureate has cancelled a visit to Britain in response to calls for boycotts of Israel, writes Melanie Newman.

Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979, was planning to visit Imperial College London in July to speak in honour of Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam and to give a talk at a conference on particle physics.

But in a letter, reproduced in today's Times Higher , to his host at Imperial, Michael Duff, Professor Weinberg said he already had mixed feelings about visiting the UK because he perceived a "widespread anti-Israel and anti-Semitic current" running through British opinion.

He decided to cancel the engagement after the National Union of Journalists voted to boycott Israeli products at its annual meeting in April.

Professor Weinberg told The Times Higher that his resolve had been strengthened by news that 130 British doctors had called for a boycott of the Israeli Medical Association and that an academic boycott motion would be debated at next week's University and College Union congress.

He said: "I love England; I was married there and am a foreign member of the Royal Society, of which I am very proud.

"Undoubtedly I will return, but at this moment I feel I have to make some gesture of moral protest. There are so many countries that deserve condemnation and yet are given a free pass. I can think of no other explanation for Israel's treatment than anti-Semitism," he said.

"This attitude is a feature of the left-wing intelligentsia in England, which is sad for me as I consider myself a man of the Left."

Professor Duff, who holds the Abdus Salam chair of theoretical physics at Imperial, said: "We're very disappointed. My personal view is that boycotts and reaction to boycotts hurt people other than those intended. On the other hand, Professor Weinberg obviously feels very deeply about this."

Professor Weinberg's announcement follows a visit to Britain last week by a delegation of senior Israeli academics attempting to convince UK academics to vote against a boycott at the UCU congress, which begins on May 30.

A composite motion to the UCU conference from the branches of Brighton and East London universities is asking the union to circulate, nationwide, the text of a boycott call from Palestinian universities. Swansea University's UCU branch passed a motion last week opposing the boycott.

Miriam Shlesinger of Bar Ilan University, former head of Amnesty International in Israel and chair of the Israeli Faculties Association Zvi Ha-Cohen, was among the Israeli delegates who visited Brighton and Manchester universities and the University of East London.

Dr Shlesinger said she and her students were still affected by the initial academic boycott call in 2002, when a publisher removed her from a journal's advisory board because she was an Israeli academic. She said: "In Manchester, the delegates were willing to engage in dialogue; in other places it was more difficult."

Another visiting delegate, Jonathan Rynhold, a lecturer in politics at Bar-Ilan University and a member of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom, said the claim by some UCU members that the boycott was "institutional" was disingenuous.

"They are calling for a moratorium on European Union funding, for which only individual academics apply. Besides, all Israeli academics are members of academic institutions, so the distinction is mute," he said.

He added that many academics they had spoken with during the visit were open to the delegation's arguments. "Many were unaware of both the integrated (Jewish-Arab) nature of Israeli higher education and the fact that academic institutions, unions and individuals adopt independent stances, some of which oppose government policies," he said.

Tom Hickey, chair of Brighton University's UCU branch, said the purpose of the boycott was to encourage Israeli academics to pressure their institutions into condemning government policies.

Meanwhile, Rivka Carmi, president of Israel's Ben-Gurion University, has spoken out against a boycott, pointing to ongoing collaborative projects between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian scholars.

"Today you boycott Israeli academia - why don't you boycott US academia about Iraq? You cannot really get away from the fact that it is something to do with the fact that Israel is a Jewish nation because otherwise why would Israel be singled out on this basis?" she said.

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