On June 23, 2003, Oxford University Professor Andrew Wilkie denied an Israeli scientist, Amit Duvshani, a coveted research position in his lab. In an email to Mr. Duvshani, Professor Wilkie made clear that his decision was based on nothing more than the applicant's nationality:
I don't think this would work. I have a huge problem with the way that the Israelis take the moral high ground from their appalling treatment in the Holocaust, and then inflict gross human rights abuses on the Palestinians because they (the Palestinians) wish to live in their own country.
I am sure that you are perfectly nice at a personal level, but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army. As you may be aware, I am not the only UK scientist with these views but I'm sure you will find another suitable lab if you look around.
Although on June 27, Professor Wilkie and Oxford University issued letters of apology, the underlying issue remains: An increasing number of global scientists and academics are using the politics of the Middle East as an excuse to boycott and ostracize their Israeli counterparts.
Since June 2002, there has been a growing international movement to shun Israeli scientists and academics. Several French universities have endorsed policies banning collaboration with Israeli academics, many English academics have endorsed a boycott of Israeli academics, Israeli academics have been dismissed from important journals because of their nationality, and many international scientists are seeking to exclude Israeli scientists from conferences and research sources.
In response to actions such as these, a not-for-profit organization called the International Academic Friends of Israel (IAFI) which stands for the principles of academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas and information within the international academic community was created. The IAFI began with a series of emails to colleagues here at Columbia University and around the world and has, over the past year, evolved into a global consortium of leading academics and scientists. In particular, IAFI seeks to ensure that Israeli academics and scientists are included and accepted in global academic and scientific circles.
IAFI will host and support international scientific meetings in Israel; bring together Israeli and global academic and scientific leaders in other forums; promote worldwide understanding and appreciation of Israeli scientific and academic achievements; and create research fellowships in the United States for Israeli and Palestinian students.
For example, IAFI will host and Columbia will sponsor "Frontiers in Cardiovascular Science," a major conference to be held in Eilat, Israel, Oct. 23-26. Associate professor of clinical medicine Neil Shachter and I will be joined by a number of prominent speakers from Israel, the United States, Europe and Canada. IAFI will also host an "academic freedom mission" just following this conference, which will include discussions with Israeli and Palestinian academic leaders about the very real problems facing their communities and what we can do to overcome them.
The June 2002 boycott started in the United Kingdom with a petition initiated by two British professors calling for a cessation of all ties with Israeli universities and academics. The idea gained momentum very quickly.
Actions taken in support of the boycott include firing Israelis from prestigious posts; the refusal of biosupply firms to provide reagents to Israeli scientists (including to Israeli genetic researchers working on a health matter related to Palestinian children); the rejection of important research papers submitted by Israelis to some of the most significant international research journals; and the exclusion of Israelis from important conferences and publishing opportunities. Earlier this year, the Association of University Teachers, one of the largest professors' unions in the United Kingdom, with more than 40,000 members, voted at its annual conference whether to recommend that all universities consider severing ties with Israeli universities and professors. That motion was hotly debated and ultimately did not pass, yet more than 15,000 U.K. academics voted in favor of boycotting Israeli academics. These are the incidents that have reached the public eye undoubtedly there are activities that pass under the radar screen.
All of these actions run wholly counter to the tenets of academic and scientific freedom, which call for tolerance and cooperation among colleagues for the benefit of scientific and academic advancements. In addition to its violation of the principle of "universality of science," adhered to by scientists for more than 70 years, the boycott's effects on medical research could become a serious health threat. The cancer research arm of the World Health Organization says that this boycott has made important medical research inaccessible, and a prominent medical and academic figure in Britain, Baroness Susan Greenfield, has publicly warned that the boycott "will harm people in every sphere, but in medical research, lives are at risk."
We cannot use political litmus tests to decide who can and cannot conduct scientific research. As a scientist and an editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, the boycott hits home. If we were to disassociate from all of our colleagues who do not share our political beliefs, we would be left markedly alone. Science does not advance in a vacuum or a laboratory of one.