Feature Head to head

Should we consider a boycott of Israeli academic institutions? No

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39266.509016.AD (Published 19 July 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:125
  1. Michael Baum, professor emeritus of surgery
  1. University College London, London WC1E 6AU
  1. michael{at}mbaum.freeserve.co.uk

    Tony Blair's appointment as Middle East peace envoy is intended to invigorate the peace process. Tom Hickey thinks boycotting universities might encourage the Israeli government to reach a settlement, but Michael Baum believes collaboration is a more effective way forward

    First of all I should declare a conflict of interest. I am a Jew and a Zionist. However, before anyone issues a Fatwa, let me explain. I consider myself a secular Jew who abhors the fanaticism among West Bank settlers. I support a two state solution. The Palestinians must have self determination; 60 years of statelessness after the British mandate is enough. This position is held by all my Israeli academic friends and colleagues. These academics are the very constituency the boycotters are targeting and are disproportionately represented in the peace camp. How can alienating this group enhance the peace process?

    The Israeli universities and research institutes are no more agents of Israel than Oxford or Cambridge are of the United Kingdom. And they are not responsible for repression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories—a policy which is universally unpopular. Furthermore, it is nonsense to suggest that you can target the institution without damaging the individual.

    Multicultural society

    Let me also dismiss the big lie that Israel is an apartheid state. Israel is a multicultural mosaic with Jews, Muslims, Christians, and other faiths. Druze, Bahá'í, and Armenian Christians chose to live there after persecution in Muslim countries. Only malign commentators can be blind to the Arabs who form 20% of Israeli citizens. They are free to vote and express their views (including the right to campaign against the state itself) and serve in the cabinet. Arab judges hold high office and Arab newspapers argue the Palestinian cause. Mosques are respected: if only such sensitivity for Jewish values was shown by the Palestinian gangs who destroyed all the synagogues when Israel withdrew its occupation forces from Gaza.

    My first hand experience of Israel started as a young surgeon in 1963-4. I worked in northern Israel in a hospital serving Arab villages, kibbutzim, new immigrant townships, and ancient communities of Arabs and Jews in Nazareth, Afula, and Tiberias. A fifth of the doctors and nurses were Arabs, trained at the expense of the Israeli government. Arab and Jewish patients were treated with the same respect in adjacent beds. This is still true in all Israeli hospitals. It is also a lie to suggest that the Israel Medical Association is complicit in the ill treatment of prisoners.1

    I would go even further and state that Israel provides more academic freedom for Arab scholars than anywhere else in the Middle East. There are numerous examples of Palestinian and Israeli collaborations. For example, the Israel Cancer Association funds initiatives that benefit both Israeli and Palestinian patients and their families. These include the Breast Care Centre at the Holy Family Hospital in Nazareth, which holds joint sessions with Israeli Jewish and Arab women and Palestinians who share common experience as survivors of breast cancer. Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem provide outreach programmes for the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Poor children from the territory get free, state of the art treatment, often supported by the Peres Foundation. Ben Gurion University of the Negev has launched the joint Israel-Jordan-Palestine project for improvement of motor skills in children with cerebral palsy and also funds the work of Ohad Birk (Israeli Jewish), Izzedelin Abuelaish (Gaza Palestinian), and Khalil Elbedour (Israeli Bedouin), who have unravelled rare genetic disorders among Negev Bedouin, where consanguineous marriages are not uncommon.

    Universities must encourage a spirit of inquiry, where members join in dialogue, with freedom of expression, learning from each other's narratives. As Malcolm Grant, provost of University College London put it: the boycott “betrays a misunderstanding of the academic mission which is founded squarely on academic freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech” Lord Adonis went further in the House of Lords2:

    Not only would a boycott be inconsistent with the spirit of openness and tolerance that should inform public life. It would also be counterproductive. Education plays a vital role in developing and aiding understanding between different people. It is therefore all the more important to keep open channels of communication with academic and educational institutions in the Middle East during these difficult times.

    Finally, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this call for a boycott damages the reputation of British academia in the eyes of the wider world.3

    Balance and cooperation

    There are two narratives concerning the tragic history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both have verity, yet they are recounted as if one had the monopoly of truth. To accept one side only and delegitimise Israel shows either ignorance or malice. For a balanced account interweaving the competing narratives I commend City of Oranges, which tries to look at the history of Jaffa, a microcosm of the wider conflict, from both sides.4

    Instead of boycott, might I suggest a more constructive approach, emulating my late brother, David? David died eight years ago while president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. His last act was to establish a sick children's clinic in Gaza. His family continue this legacy through the David Baum International Foundation at the college. Like David, I believe passionately that we can all do our bit for peace by building bridges between British, Israeli, and Palestinian academics and physicians. Through this collaboration and dialogue the health and welfare of all will improve, leading to increasing mutual respect and trust; sowing seeds for a peaceful solution ahead of any “road map.”

    However, if you still support the boycott, remember to stop using laptops with Pentium processors, and do not transfer files using USB hub drives, both of which are the fruits of Israeli academic inventions.

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