Scientists and BDS, in France and in the US

|Michael Harris |Tribunes

[This article has been published by Politics/Letters in February].

On the lengthening roster of scholarly associations that have passed resolutions in favor of the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) in protest of Israeli policies — including the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association, and most recently the American Anthropological Association [1] — or where resolutions of this kind have at least been proposed for discussion — notably the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association — the absence of professional organizations representing scientists is hard to miss. The failure of the campus’s other half to engage collectively in any way with the growing movement contrasts sharply with the situation in the spring of 2002, when, in the wake of the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank, two petitions, precursors of the BDS movement, were initiated by scientists in Britain and France and collected hundreds of signatures. The British petition appeared as a letter to the Guardian (the headliners were all life scientists and physicists), and was specifically directed at European academic and cultural cooperation with Israel :

Odd though it may appear, many national and European cultural and research institutions, including especially those funded from the EU and the European Science Foundation, regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. (No other Middle Eastern state is so regarded). Would it not therefore be timely if at both national and European level a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abide by UN resolutions and open serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians…

The French letter, which was initially published in Libération, continued to circulate in two languages, primarily by an ad hoc collective of mathematicians and physicists. It took the form of a pledge :

I can no longer in good conscience continue to cooperate with official Israeli institutions, including universities. I will attend no scientific conferences in Israel, and I will not participate as referee in hiring or promotion decisions by Israeli universities, or in the decisions of Israeli funding agencies. I will continue to collaborate with, and host, Israeli scientific colleagues on an individual basis.

It should not be surprising to find scientists at the forefront of the academic protest movement at the time. The EU had only recently adopted the Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP6), which for the first time included Israel as an Associated Country, the only one not physically part of Europe. [2] While countries in the European Research Area can obtain funding for research in all academic areas, the preponderance of funds go to the sciences and technology. [3] Even before Israel was granted the status of Associated Country, some scientists had expressed misgivings about the organization of European research activities in Israel for a variety of reasons. Some were aware of the consequences of the occupation for Palestinian higher education through direct experience, or had been made aware of the consequences by Palestinian or Israeli colleagues. Others were concerned that European citizens of Arab or Muslim origin would not be able to participate comfortably, or at all, in European-funded activities taking place in Israel ; admitting Israel into the European research area thus amounted to importing Israeli discrimination back into Europe. Physicists knew that Edward Witten, probably the best-known mathematical physicist of his generation, had for several decades been an active supporter of Palestinian universities. Many physicists had also been in contact with the late Daniel Amit, a physicist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and cofounder (in 1981) of the Committee for Solidarity with Bir Zeit University, the direct inspiration for a Massachusetts-based organization with a similar name ; Amit was jailed a few years later for his refusal to serve the Israeli occupation in Lebanon. The prominence of mathematicians in the group that drafted the French petition can be traced in part to the central role the Fields medalist Laurent Schwartz played in human rights campaigns in France, notably in his support for Algerian independence at a time when it was dangerous to do so.

Scientific establishments and the press responded quickly to the petitions. Ten days after the letter appeared in the Guardian, Ha’aretz had published an article entitled « The Intifada Reaches the Ivory Tower. » A few days later Nature published an editorial entitled « Don’t boycott Israeli scientists, » followed by responses by the authors of both petitions. By the end of the summer the Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the International Mathematical Union had all issued statements of opposition to scientific boycotts, with particular attention to the British and French petitions regarding Israeli academic institutions. Later that year letters opposing and supporting the petitions were published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. In the meantime, petitions against the petitions began to collect signatures, primarily among scientists, and a great many of the signatories began to receive private messages from strangers as well as colleagues. For example, a few mathematicians were surprised to receive a letter containing the following suggestions from one of the field’s most distinguished representatives :

You have appealed to boycott a state which has been a victim of an unprecedented series of terror attacks ; you want this state to be treated as apartheid South Africa. Ask your individual conscience whether this appeal is moral (even if Sharon is 100% wrong).…

Here is a constructive suggestion : to repent.

A number of signatories were overwhelmed by the letters, which often bordered on hate mail, and withdrew their signatures. In December 2002 the publisher of the International Journal of Game Theory asked editor-in-chief Sylvain Sorin to resign because he had signed the French petition and « too many Israeli game theorists feel that they cannot cooperate with somebody who signed the boycott of Israeli scientific institutions. » A year after it began, the academic boycott movement had largely subsided. It was revived in 2005 as one component of the BDS campaign launched by PACBI ; ten years later, it has grown into an international force that cannot be ignored. But scientists are no longer prominent in the movement — except in France, where mathematicians and physicists remain central in AURDIP (Association des Universitaires pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine), which is affiliated with PACBI.

The French movement is in any case severely hampered by a government policy that makes France the only country, along with Israel, that effectively criminalizes BDS. A directive issued in 2010 by Michèle Alliot-Marie, the Minister of Justice under the right-wing government of the time, instructed prosecutors to bring criminal charges against individuals who call on consumers not to buy Israeli products. This directive was not abrogated after the election of a Socialist government ; on the contrary, just this past October the highest appeals court upheld the conviction of 12 French activists for « incitement to hate or discrimination » for wearing BDS T-shirts and handing out BDS flyers at a supermarket in Mulhouse, and ordered to pay tens of thousands of euros in court costs and legal fees. Even attempts to discuss the BDS on campuses have been blocked repeatedly by university presidents that systematically deny the use of auditoriums for this purpose — most notoriously in 2011, when Monique Canto-Sperber provoked an international protest by preventing a planned meeting at the École Normale Supérieure with the French resistance hero and diplomat Stéphane Hessel.

No doubt it would be harder for the French government to sustain this policy if the movement had a broader disciplinary base. Although I lived in France for 20 years I can’t really explain why the academic boycott has had so much more trouble making headway among French anthropologists and geographers than among their counterparts in the U.S. One often hears that talk of boycotting Israel evokes uncomfortable memories of Vichy and collaboration with the Nazi occupation. This may help account for the frequent irrationality of of the arguments against the academic boycott in France [4] but it doesn’t explain why humanists and social scientists, in contrast to scientists and mathematicians, are particularly susceptible to these arguments. The absence of a French academic comparable to Edward Said must certainly be a factor, and indeed postcolonialism and critical theory influenced by identity politics have been marginal in French scholarship. Indeed, even multiculturalism remains as dirty a word in French literary departments as in governing circles, and it’s not hard to detect a genteel islamophobia in the tone, if not the content, of professorial op-ed pieces. [5] Perhaps French academics are susceptible to the influence of North American colleagues, but the most recent restrictions on civil liberties in France, adopted in the wake of the Paris attacks in January and November, are so far-reaching and alarming that little movement on that front is likely in the near future.

More promising is the prospect that the professional associations of North American scientists will eventually follow the lead of their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences. Why is this not happening already ? One can speculate that, while science departments are no less diverse and international than humanities departments, postcolonialism and similar studies play essentially no role in constituting the subject matter of scientific disciplines ; in this sense, at least, North American scientists have more in common with humanists in France than at home. Academics in the U.S. tend to assume (at least in private) that their scientific colleagues are less politically active in general because of their greater dependence on government contracts. Whether or not this is true, [6] its relevance to relations with Israel is questionable. More relevant is the inherently global nature of most scientific research. While Israeli academics play at most a marginal role in American or Asian-American studies, Israel is fully integrated in the international circuits of scientific research, much more so than South Africa ever was. Israeli students and post-docs move freely among laboratories in Europe, North America, and Asia ; more importantly, the research moves along with them. When one chooses to join the academic boycott one therefore has not only to be prepared to face the bitter and often abusive comments of long-time professional colleagues ; in a real sense, one is also choosing to undertake a partial boycott of one’s own profession, and this is especially true in the sciences. [7]

Nevertheless, if and when Palestine has its « South Africa moment » in humanities and social science departments across the United States — if and when, that is, it becomes as ethically problematic in these departments to justify cooperation with Israeli academic institutions as it was 30 years ago with those of apartheid South Africa — it’s hard to imagine that scientists will feel comfortable maintaining their current level of cooperation. In the meantime, given the propensity of professional organizations of scientists to avoid controversy, it would probably be more productive, as well as easier, for those already involved on campus to make an active effort to encourage the participation of individual scientists in ongoing BDS campaigns. There is also a place for petitions on the model of those circulated in Europe in 2002, which allow scientists to declare their adherence to the academic boycott as individuals, without requiring them to engage with the awkward internal politics of their professional associations.

[1Also the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the International Critical Geography Group, and probably more by the time this article appears.

[2Israel was joined in this status by Tunisia in December 2015.

[3Although the EU loves statistics, it is not easy to find exact figures for the breakdown. Of the 2973 grants funded by the European Research Council and listed on this table, 90.5% were in Physical Sciences and Engineering or Life Sciences.

[4Thus Le Monde quoted Bernard-Henri Lévy on January 6, 2003 : « l’université française est la seule grande institution à ne pas avoir fait acte de repentance pour les fautes de Vichy. » Lévy was addressing a demonstration protesting a motion by the Administrative Council of the Université Paris 6, calling on the university’s president not to renew an exchange agreement with Israel. Although the motion was in no sense a boycott, Lévy read a text by Claude Lanzmann at the demonstration, in which the film-maker unleashed a torrent of passionate but thoroughly irrelevant rhetoric, insisting on the parallel with the Nazi anti-Jewish laws of 1933.

[5On the ideological sources of French « national republicanism, » see Joseph Confavreux et Marine Turchi, « Aux sources de la nouvelle pensée unique, » Revue du crieur, 02 (octobre 2015) 4-21.

[6It certainly hasn’t discouraged opposition to government policies in the past. To quote the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1987, "As of June 1986, 3,700 faculty members and 2,800 graduate students in the physical sciences and engineering, including the majority of faculty in 59 top physics research departments, had signed a pledge not to accept funds for work on SDI [the Strategic Defense Initiative]. Members of the American Mathematical Society voted in 1988 by a margin of 57% to refuse to lend « a spurious scientific legitimacy » to the SDI program ; see here.

[7In the past few years AURDIP has on three occasions been asked to protest international academic conferences in Israel — once in film studies, once in psychoanalysis, and once in South Asian history. During the same period, the Weizmann Insitute of Science in Rehovot has been holding scientific conferences at a rate of nearly one per week. And the Weizmann Institute is only one of several major universities and research centers in Israel.

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