Scientists urged to boycott Israel biochemistry conference

Palestinian cancer patients in Gaza City protest Israel’s restrictions on travel for treatment, December 2016. Such restrictions are partly why academics are calling on colleagues to boycott September’s Federation of European Biochemical Societies conference in Jerusalem.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Palestinian, Israeli and international academics are urging colleagues to boycott the 2017 congress of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies in Jerusalem next month.

“Some attendees will be unaware of Israel’s direct attacks on Palestinians’ right to education, including the bombing of schools and universities, and the obstruction of access to educational sites,” the scientists and academics write in a letter that has been sent to all conference speakers.

“The restrictions Israel places on the teaching and research of our Palestinian colleagues have severe consequences not only on research and educational opportunities, but also on Palestinians’ health.”

The 89 scholars calling for the boycott include researchers from leading institutions across Europe and North America.

Even though no country recognizes Israel’s claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem, the Federation of European Biochemical Societies conference website prominently advertises its location as “Jerusalem, Israel.”

It also locates the occupied Golan Heights – Syrian territory – as part of “Israel.”

Whether intentional or not, this makes the academic body a direct participant in Israel’s efforts to legitimize its violent occupation, annexation and colonization of these territories in violation of international law.

Complicit institutions

The conference is sponsored by several Israeli universities that are directly complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, including weapons development, support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza and helping recruitment for Israel’s secret police.

Israeli universities are also directly involved in efforts to undermine international solidarity for Palestinian rights.

The Association of University Heads of Israel, for instance, is known to help the Israeli government’s efforts to censor teaching about Palestine in universities in other countries and to try to thwart the global Palestinian rights movement.

Dying of cancer

One of the themes of the conference is the biochemistry of cancer. Rates of cancer are rising, particularly for Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip.

But as the scholars point out, Israel actively obstructs life-saving treatment: “The five-year survival rate for breast cancer is as low as 30 percent in Gaza, which Israel has besieged for the past 10 years, as compared to 86 percent in Israel. In 2016, only 44 percent of Gaza patients who requested access to Israeli hospitals were admitted; more than half of those refused entry were cancer patients.”

Meanwhile, the health system in Gaza is at the brink of collapse due to Israel’s severe reductions in the energy supply to the territory.

Sensitive to politics

Anticipating typical arguments against the boycott, the scholars state: “To be clear, the academic boycott of Israel that Palestinians have called for respects the universal principle of academic freedom as it is only directed at Israeli institutions, not individual academics. Despite the differences, it is inspired by the academic boycott of South Africa, which was called for in 1965 by 496 academics from 34 universities in the United Kingdom.”

Last year, after a similar appeal, several scholars pulled out of a conference on genocide hosted by Hebrew University.

Israeli university leaders have said that they are being hit hard by a “silent boycott,” where many academics stay away from Israeli institutions but do not make any public statement.

Leading Israel lobby groups have also acknowledged the growing impact of the so-called silent boycott.

The scholars note that the Federation of European Biochemical Societies has itself been sensitive to political concerns regarding the location of its conferences. In 2016, the body expressed “solidarity with the Turkish scientific community” facing curtailment of academic freedoms in Turkey, and subsequently canceled its conference scheduled to take place there.

“By organizing its congress in Jerusalem, the FEBS participates consciously or unconsciously in whitewashing Israel’s violent repression of Palestinian human rights,” said Ahmed Abbes, research director at France’s CNRS scientific institute, and secretary of AURDIP, an academic group that supports Palestinians rights.

“We hope that our colleagues will take the opportunity of consulting their consciences, listen to the voice of Palestinian civil society, and decline to cross this picket line.”

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It would constitute a shocking repudiation of medical, more broadly scientific and philosophical ethics if this conference goes ahead under present conditions. Israel is killing cancer patients in Gaza as an act of policy. No one in the scientific community should have anything to do with such a gathering.

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