Is this another war on ‘Jewish science’?

The elite protest against today’s Israel Day of Science in London is built on double standards and a deep disdain for academic freedom.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Free Speech

At the London Science Museum today, school students will be able to attend workshops on everything from solar energy to water desalination. That these science sessions will be run by experts in their fields, such as a physicist who worked on the Large Hadron Collider or a leading nanotechnology researcher, will be of immense value to the students, many of whom will be taking science A-levels this summer.

There is a problem, however. This ‘Israel Day of Science’ is organised by the Zionist Federation and several Israeli universities, a fact of sufficient power to prompt a 400-strong protest organised by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), the same group which has consistently called for a ban to be imposed on Israeli academics. In an open letter to the Guardian, the protest organisers write: ‘The event is promoted by the Zionist Federation and is designed to showcase the scientific achievements of seven Israeli universities. But all of these are complicit in the Israeli occupation and in the policies and weaponry so recently deployed to such disastrous effect in Gaza… The event is being billed as a celebration of science. In fact it is an attempted celebration of Israel.’ (1)

A celebration of Israel? While there’s little doubt that the Israel Day of Science pays tribute to the achievements of scientists working in Israel, the content of the day is, as far as I can tell (and the title’s a clue here), science. Subjects include cancer research, stem cells, biochemistry and water desalination. There are no sessions on 1948, Gaza or the West Bank. While the organisers of the day do seem to be showing off the achievements of scientists employed in Israel, that is considerably different to boasting about Israel the nation, or celebrating the ‘occupation of Palestine’.

Sadly, making a distinction between science and the nationality, let alone the opinions, of its practitioners seems to be beyond those calling for the Science Museum to expel the Israeli scientists in their midst. In the words of the frontpage splash in the Independent on Tuesday, ‘400 academics, a Nobel laureate and the former chair of the Science Select Committee called on the museum to cancel workshops due to be held this week that promote Israeli scientific achievements to schoolchildren’ (2). Perhaps it is just unfortunate wording, but what on earth are ‘Israeli scientific achievements’? Does cancer research have national characteristics? Is physics in Tel Aviv different to physics at Imperial (London)?

Analogies with Nazi-era Germany are too easily and too carelessly flung around these days, both to the detriment of understanding events in the present and the horrors of the past. The protest against the Israel Day of Science bears no relation to Nazism, as some of the shrill defenders of Israel have claimed. And yet, insofar as the protesters are conflating scientific achievement with the national background of the scientists involved, the parallels with the wartime German persecution of the ‘Jewish Physics’ of Albert Einstein or the ‘Jewish Science’ of Freud are revealing: both then and now, in vastly different ways, the life and findings of the mind are being shot down by political expedience.

Curtailing the freedom of those with whom one disagrees is damaging enough to the exchange of ideas and the development of human knowledge. But to try to prevent people from speaking or from educating sixth-form students – not because one is outraged by what they have to say about desalinating water or making solar panels, but rather by their nationality – is a common disgrace.

There is great hypocrisy in the condemnation of the Israel Day of Science. Labour MP Ian Gibson objects to the Day on the basis that ‘science is not neutral’: ‘It is part of the political process, and very much so in that part of the world.’ (3) He is right: science is not ‘neutral’. It has meaning as part of a universal human desire to understand the world. It is pursued, not for its own sake, but for us; not neutrally, but contextually, humanly.

But Gibson, of course, is saying something more. He is saying that in Israel, science is corrupted by politics, tainted by the demands (and funding) of the Israeli nation state. One wonders where he thinks certain British university departments get their funding from, if not from his own ruling Labour government, the destroyer of Afghanistan and Iraq. And does the granting of honorary degrees to Bill Clinton or Tony Blair infect certain university departments with the Clinton/Blair virus of fact-defying, war-mongering zeal? By the criterion of BRICUP’s accusation of ‘complicity’, it would be a struggle to find any university in the world not guilty by state association. There are extraordinary double standards at play here.

What has been utterly buried by the impassioned rhetoric and craven moralising directed at the Israel Day of Science is the principle of freedom that ought to be enshrined in the academy – that is, the freedom to pursue knowledge without impediment, to question orthodoxies, to engage in the free exchange of ideas. Such open pursuit of knowledge is a bastion of freedom of speech itself. But the righteousness of the anti-Israel cause is so overpowering that it seems this freedom is to be withheld from those deemed ‘unacceptable’ or ‘tainted’. If such freedom is limited in this way, if the freedom to pursue one’s research or to engage with students is curtailed, then academic freedom as a whole is compromised. The liberty to explore and articulate ideas is not negotiable, a license to be dispensed or withheld depending on the academic’s background; it must be universal. This week’s protest against the Israel Day of Science is built on prejudice, illiberalism and anti-intellectualism.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild said the only thing we should boycott is boycotts. University of East Anglia student Richard Reynolds struck a blow for free speech. Wendy Kaminer told Brendan O’Neill that students have become ‘Young Authoritarians’. Maria Grasso and Lee Jones argued against the Oxford students calling for the censure of an anti-immigration professor. Alex Gourevitch and Alan Miller reported from Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University and said it showed ‘free speech’ as pantomime. Steve Bremner looked at instances of campus censorship. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech and Education.

(1) Museums should cancel these Israel Days of Science, Guardian, 16 February 2009

(2) Science Museum accused over links to Israel, Independent, 3 March 2009

(3) Science Museum accused over links to Israel, Independent, 3 March 2009

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Topics Free Speech


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