“Billions of dollars are being spent on weapons of mass destruction. A small fraction of that could go so far to engage more Israeli and Arab scientists in collaborative projects in order to create a critical mass that will bring about peace.” The speaker is Dr. Zafra Lerman, President of the Malta Conferences Foundation, which organizes conferences in nonaligned Malta for Israeli, Palestinian and Middle Eastern scientists. These bi-annual conferences, attended by researchers from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, focus such neutral topics as materials science, as well as common interests like water and environmental issues. But they are structured to provide an environment in which, according to enthusiastic Malta conference participant Prof. David Cahen, science is the bridge that enables Israelis and Arabs to communicate.
Prof. Hasan Dweik, Vice President for Science and Society at Al-Quds University in eastern Jerusalem, did more than just converse with his Israeli counterparts – he is determined to present an example of cooperation. He is presently on sabbatical, working in a chemistry lab at the Weizmann Institute, and he has encouraged several students in the Palestinian Authority to conduct their PhD studies at the Institute.
Can scientists influence the relations between the two countries?
While it may seem, on the face of things, that scientists have little sway in the politics of their respective countries, Dweik’s story contains a few glimmers of hope. These begin with his personal story: In 1971, he and his brother were standing outside their father’s bakery when a terrorist bomb exploded in a nearby, Jewish-owned restaurant. His brother, Hussein, was killed and Hasan was wounded. For Dweik, the experience led him to understand, on a very deep level, the very heavy price exacted when both sides fail to make the concessions needed to bring about peace.
Dweik is on a sort of mission to “build up a core of scientists who are good educators in order to create our own faculty of science education.” On the one hand, he is helping to create a cadre of Palestinians and Israelis who are learning, both literally and figuratively, to cross bridges to one another. On the other, he is working to expand the PA’s primary network of scientists – people who are trained to ask questions and seek answers – which is essential to creating a modern peaceful, democratic country.
This Weizmann Science Writer (speaking for herself, only) would like to believe that, if not this time then next, Dweik’s voice and that of others who have glimpsed a future of Palestinians and Israelis freely working in collaboration will be heard by those sitting at the negotiating table.