Taking Stands – Not Sides

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

Patrick Bateson | Index for Free Expression | 20 September 2002

When, if ever, is a boycott justified? What are the practical and moral criteria that determine when the time has come? Patrick Bateson, professor of ethology and provost of King’s College, Cambridge University explains his own position.
As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict worsened, Hilary and Steven Rose, she professor of social policy at Bradford University, he professor of biology at the Open University, wrote to a large number of friends and colleagues asking whether they would put their names to a letter recommending a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
My own feeling was that Israeli reprisals against the Palestinians after the suicide bomb attacks, dealt with the symptoms rather than the causes of the violence. It is nave of the most passionate advocates of ‘the war against terror’ to suppose that Israel can kill the Hydra by chopping off one of its heads, and implausible that Israel will ever achieve the Herculean task without generating ten more heads for every one destroyed.
Before the country has alienated all its friends, leaving itself in a more perilous position than if it had attempted to deal with the major sources of discontent, Israel would benefit from a thorough analysis of why it has stirred up so much hatred.
If I had a reservation about signing the boycott letter, it was that I did not know what Israeli scientific colleagues in the peace movement would feel about it. Would they find such a letter helpful? I sensed they must be feeling terribly isolated and did not want to add to their misery.
So I wrote to a number of Israeli friends to discover their reactions. Inevitably, I got a mixed response, but I was particularly impressed by the message from one colleague. She wrote to Steven Rose:
“Pat Bateson told me about your letter to the newspaper that you hope will exert pressure on my crazy government. I think this is a good idea – we need some form of intervention. I am answering immediately, so at present I can talk only in my own name, but I believe some colleagues in my department will share my feelings. I believe you should publish your letter whatever Israeli academics feel. Some may be too attached to their grants to be happy with what you are doing.”
“On the strength of this, I decided to sign the letter that duly appeared in the Guardian on 5 April over the names of more than 120 academics and research workers. The letter read as follows:
“Despite widespread international condemnation for its policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders. The major potential source of effective criticism, the United States, seems reluctant to act.
“However, there are ways of exerting pressure from within Europe. 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 abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including, most recently, that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League.”
Colin Blakemore, Richard Dawkins and I are Fellows of the Royal Society and were singled out from the signatories for especially vehement attack. We have all been involved in controversial issues in the past and are not afraid to stick our heads above the parapet.
I have never been subjected to such a volume of hate via email: I was accused me of being anti-Semitic, a Nazi, sub-human etc. A senior editor at Nature made the usual anti-Semitic accusations and strongly implied that I might as well not think about sending a paper to his journal. I was also accused of using my office inappropriately.
In fact, I had been asked to give my private address; the Provost’s Lodge at King’s College, Cambridge is where I live. I wrote back to the less abusive protestors and the debate often took on a more civilised character, though some of my US colleagues, in particular, remained unforgiving, finding the whole idea of the proposed boycott utterly repugnant.
Jewish friends in the UK said, more in sorrow than in anger, that they wished I hadn’t signed the letter but listened to the arguments and, even if they didn’t agree, respected that people might choose the moratorium to jolt the conscience of a country.
Was that necessary? Here again is the voice of the same friend and colleague in Israel whose views had persuaded me to sign in the first place.
“Thank you for your letter and for you concern. It is not the hate reactions that I get from the right-wingers that are distressing to me – I am used to those. I am shocked by the amazing hate reactions that I am getting from my left-wing colleagues who interpret my support of the Guardian letter as an act of treason, as spitting in the face of the Israeli academic community, as an act justifying and encouraging anti-semitism, as killing the spirit of science in Israel and so on. I am really shocked and dismayed by these irrational responses, and at first I was not prepared
“I am really disappointed by my left-wing colleagues, although I am getting over the initial shock. Their reaction is so full of self-defence and self-righteousness that I find it unbelievable and somewhat disgusting. I am also amazed at the level of tribal loyalty of the academic community – a lot of the people who condemn me are in favour of some form of sanctions on Israel – but not in their back yard, not on the holy academic community! And I am also angered by the petty warnings of some people that I shall pay an academic price…
“I hope that this reflects unjustified worry on their part, but if this is what people really think might happen, well, they should be ashamed of the system. ‘But Pat, these really are small matters. We live in a terrible reality. The bomb that exploded yesterday was very near to where I live and where I often do my shopping. I worry about my family and friends constantly and I am enraged by what we (Israelis) do to the Palestinians who suffer ten times more than we do.
“I need not tell you what I think about Sharon’s government, how strongly I oppose it. I agree with your analysis of the situation and I think the recent resolution of the European Parliament is excellent – very good for both sides. I love Israel and I worry deeply about what my society is becoming.”
Some Israeli friends who supported this position but others, perhaps predictably, dismissed such views as those of ‘communists’ and ‘trouble-makers’ who were beyond the pale of Israeli society.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when he got to hear of the proposed boycott, supported it and added that, in his view, the intellectual boycott of South Africa had played a part in the downfall of apartheid. The relevance of this analogy is disputed and I shall return to the genuinely interesting and important question of the circumstances in which a just boycott is possible.
What are the arguments? I have always been impressed by the intelligence of my Israeli colleagues and by the torrent of well-articulated arguments that pour from their lips and pens. Now the full measure of their verbal skill was deployed against me, Blakemore and Dawkins. Richard Dawkins was so impressed that he stated publicly he regretted signing the Guardian letter.
Rarely were the arguments downright silly, but I did encounter the claim that the Sharon policy of reprisals was working – emailed to me just before another bomb was exploded. The most common question put to me was: why pick on Israel when so many other, more horrible things are happening in the world?
What about the Russian treatment of Chechnya or the Chinese treatment of Tibet? My response was that the unresolved issue of Israel and Palestine, probably more than any other, is likely to generate world conflict. The manifestly unjust treatment of the Palestinians motivates the Islamic world to distrust and hate the West and generates precisely what the West fears most: the terrorism that could disable civilisation.
And Israeli intellectuals are much more likely to be in a position to influence the political process in their own country than are Russian or Chinese intellectuals in theirs.
Another question was: would not a moratorium on funding to Israeli institutions damage the pursuit of knowledge that is neutral and has nothing to do with politics? I was asked this by a New York Times reporter who initially wanted to know whether I was keeping Israeli students out of my own college.
I said I had signed the Guardian letter in a private capacity. In any event, the moratorium was not directed against individuals; I would strongly disapprove if its spirit were interpreted in that way.
On the matter of the neutrality of science I provocatively mentioned Mengele. ‘Are you likening Israeli scientists to Mengele?’ she asked. ‘Certainly not’, I replied. I explained to her that I merely wished to make the point that Mengele’s horrific experiments on concentration camp prisoners were conducted in the social context of an equally horrific ideology, a terrible fact that argues against the assumption of the neutrality of science.
Nevertheless, she managed, in her article, to imply that I was suggesting a link between Mengele and Israeli scientists. Unsurprisingly, that little piece of mischievous reporting triggered a fresh round of abusive emails.
A somewhat similar view to that of the New York Times reporter was published in The Times of London on 14 August in an article by Susan Greenfield. She opened as follows:
“We university mandarins are supposed to be reflective and logical: above all we are, presumably, expected to think through the consequences of our actions beforehand, and to place the highest priority on the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and promulgation of scholarship.
“I deplore the recent call by British academics for a boycott of Israeli cultural and research contacts: it simply flies in the face of what academics, and scientists in particular, should be about.”
I thought this was grandly priggish and nave. By a process known as ‘affiliation bias’ scientists consciously or unconsciously tailor their published findings to the wishes of their paymasters, whether they be the tobacco or the food industries, civil servants making procurements for national defence or pharmaceutical companies.
Of course, it can and should be argued that this is regrettable, undesirable and should not tarnish the ideal of honest sharing of information. But the impact of society on science is all too evident.
Moreover, influences flow both ways and the impact of scientists on society can also be very considerable. If their funding is threatened by the actions of their own government, their initial response will certainly be to protest volubly that they have nothing to do with political decisions, but then they can start to exert the real influence they do possess.
Greenfield poured especial scorn on her two Oxford colleagues, Blakemore and Dawkins, characterising them as ‘wannabe statesmen’. Having built a divisive fence, she went on, they now seemed to wish to sit on it: “This type of vacillation does nothing for the current shifty image of scientists with the general public.”
Blakemore and Dawkins are perfectly capable of responding in kind, but I felt that her argument was shallow and, indeed, I suspect that the public perception of shifty scientists, if it is real, is more likely derived from strong pronouncements based on inadequate evidence such as those Greenfield is inclined to make herself.
That said, I too have felt ambivalence about the recommended moratorium on funding for Israeli academic institutions because it does, indeed, run counter to the ideals – if not the practice – of our profession.
But the debate needs to be treated with proper seriousness and not dismissed as vacillation. I promised earlier to return to the issue of justified and unjustified boycotts. This is a matter about which a genuinely interesting debate can be held.
I have started such a discussion with a very dear Jewish friend who disapproved of my signing the original Guardian letter. He thinks that contemporary Israel is not like South Africa under apartheid.
Many South African academics were complicit in the racial policies of their government and benefited personally from them. Israel is a democracy and its academics are only harmed by the policies of their violent right-wing government.
Whether or not my brave Israeli colleague who stood out against the pressures to conform would agree with him, the issue is an important one. If we agree that boycotts can be instigated with justice on certain occasions (and I accept that many would not agree), can we specify what constitutes proper grounds for this?
Patrick Bateson is professor of ethology and provost of King’s College, Cambridge University.
A version of this article appears in issue 4/02 of Index on Censorship.