Call on museums to cancel 'Israel Day of Science'


A letter appeared in yesterday's Guardian calling on Science Museums to cancel planned 'Israel Day of Science' events in London and Manchester. The letter carried 383 signatories including well-known figures such as Ian Gibson MP and Professor Jim Al-Khalili. Full details below the fold.

There's no doubting that Israel punches well above its weight when it comes to science and technology - website regularly announces new advances such as impenetrable armour, missile interceptors, and unmanned aerial and ground drones. Each of these is undoubtedly a fantastic innovation in its own right, so is it fair that the actions of the Israeli military cast a shadow on the scientists' achievement? Or is Israeli science, and therefore these museum events, inherently politicised?

The letter is reprinted below as it appears on the Guardian website.

Quite extraordinarily, the Science Museum in London and the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry have both been made available (on 3 and 5 March respectively) for an event called "Israel Day of Science". The museums argue they are not sponsoring the event, but have merely hired out their premises. This subtle distinction is unlikely to be appreciated by the many thousands of all ages and faiths who have repeatedly taken to the streets round the country to protest against Israeli war crimes in Gaza.

The event is promoted by the Zionist Federation and is designed to showcase the scientific achievements of seven Israeli universities. But all of these are complicit in the Israeli occupation and in the policies and weaponry so recently deployed to such disastrous effect in Gaza. To take just one example, Tel Aviv University, in its most recent annual review, states that "the Israel ministry of defence is currently funding 55 projects at TAU", which "is playing a major role in enhancing Israel's security capabilities and military edge". The head of TAU's security studies programme was a former director of the R&D directorate of the Israel ministry of defence. He holds the rank of major-general in the Israel Defence Forces and is a member of the Knesset.

Israel Day of Science is aimed particularly at sixth-form students, who can be expected to come in parties from schools across the country. What reaction can be expected from the many young people, already disaffected from science, who will associate the science museums with this Israeli public relations exercise? The event is being billed as a celebration of science. In fact it is an attempted celebration of Israel.

In the immediate aftermath of the indiscriminate slaughter and attempted annihilation of all the infrastructure of organised society in Gaza, how can this "celebration" be allowed to borrow some respectability from the use of these distinguished institutions? The museums should cancel these unseemly events.

Charles Jencks, Mairead Maguire, Dr Ian Gibson MP, Walter Hain, Ahdaf Soueif, Professor RS MacKay (Warwick), Reem Kelani (Singer), Karl Sabbagh, Professor Steven Rose (Open University), Sabah Al-Mukhtar (Arab Lawyers Association), Professor Jonathan Rosenhead (LSE), Dr Sue Blackwell (Birmingham), Professor Jim Al-Khalili (Surrey) and 368 others


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No, it's not fair to stigmatize Israeli scientists for the actions of their government. Indeed, although she hasn't yet commented on this specific letter yet, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt points out how much of this criticism is driven by a resurgence in anti-Semitism in Europe:…

That is not to say that all (or even most) who are opposed to the actions of the Israeli government are anti-Semitic, but anti-Semites do try very hard to legitimize their anti-Semitism under the cloak of criticism of the Israeli government. Also, critics such as the signatories of this letter always seem to forget that the conflict is a two-way street. Ask them what they would suggest that Israel do to stop rockets from raining down on its southern regions? Politically, there was enormous pressure on the government to do something. From that, of course, we can look at the recriminations going back decades. How to break this cycle, I do not know, but I do know that such ill-advised "boycotts" and drives are ill-advised and almost certainly counterproductive. Worse, they are very easily coopted by the anti-Semites.

This reminds me of the boycott of South Africa. Not because the boycott itself has the same validity or chance of working (The SA boycott did work, and probably was valid) but rather because of the seemingly ham handed way the Brits are handling this. The only way this boycott would really work is if the Israeli scientists (some majority or even large majority of them) called it or joined in it. Then it *might* work.

Might "work" to accomplish what?

this is an interesting one. Where science is used to produce military equipment used to kill innocent civilians, then yes, it is political. So for me the promotion of Israeli biomedical research, or research into particle physics (unrelated to weapons manufacture) or any other area of science is one thing - but to blatantly plug Israeli military 'advancements,' used to massacre Gazans in their droves, in this manner does not qualify as the promotion of science.

You asked "is it fair that the actions of the Israeli military cast a shadow on the scientists' achievement?" I'm afraid that if the science itself is directly put to use in the killing of civilians then science cannot say 'well, we invented Technology X for purpose Y, we never intended the military to use it to kill Gazans" and wash its hands of it, particularly if the research into Tech X was sponsored by the military.

@ Orac, I take your point about the conflict being a two-way street, which is why I would be equally uncomfortable with an exhibition by the makers of Qassam rockets.

Errrmmm.... so British, American, French, etc universities aren't chocka with projects funded by their respective militaries and / or arms companies?

Seriously, either boycott *all* universities that are in league with the military or boycott none. Otherwise, you're choosing one conflict over another and saying "that one's more important than that other one."

Is Gaza any different / more important than Iraq? Can you tell me why Israel is better / worse / different than the UK or US in this respect?

Even though I have very strong objections to the Isreali military behavior, I think this is inappropriate.

If scientists want politics to stay out of science, they should not be pushing science into politics. It is certainly legitimate for science to inform political debate, but pushing into an area that isn't even a scientific question does more to politicize science from the inside as GWB did from the outside.

Whilst it's true that racists can and do try to co-opt any protests against Israel, it works the other way, too: Zionists try to tar any protest with the brush of anti-semitism.

I don't think there's any way to avoid this, so the only thing to do is not to let it control one's actions. If something deserves protest, then protest.

Should these particular events be stopped? On the whole I think not.

One of the ideas behind the EU - before it was even the EEC - was that strong economic (and to a lesser extent cultural and social) links between nations would make war impossible. I think there's a lot to be said for this, and that it could apply to places other than Europe.

Cutting off any nation reduces our options for influencing its policies. I don't think that economic boycotts are without value, but I see little to be gained from attempting to stop the exhibitions.

There's also the problem that at the moment most of the media coverage of Israel - in the UK, anyway - is quite negative. (And deservedly so, IMO.) But it's all too easy for anti-Israel sentiments to become more general anti-semitic opinion and even action. (Britain has a very mixed record on our treatment of Jews; I'd just as soon try to stick to the more civilized side.) Giving a bit of positive coverage might help show that there's more to Israel than the mess in Palestine.

For people who are unhappy with Israel's actions, then the exhibitions could provide a good opportunity for public protest, just so people don't forget that there IS still a bloody mess in Palestine.

These actions are important. They make the Brits feel like they can avoid actual responsibility for the mess they created in the Middle East. From incompetent colonialization, to Jewish quotas during the Holocaust the ripped families apart and encouraged illegal immigration to Israel to wiping their hands and allowing the various sides to start shooting at each other in 1948.

Of course, preventing science education displays and a better understanding of cultures will solve everything. It's also worth noting that Frank Swain links to which seems to have posted only a few science articles a year yet he still manages to pull out only the military science related articles out of a much larger list. There is legitimate criticism of Israeli actions, but this behavior doesn't do wonders for supporting your point of view.


I think you'll need to read a few history books.

Jewish quotas have no relationship to the Holocaust - they predate it by decades.

Your assertion is pretty luducrous even without that: how would Jewish refugees get to Palestine though the various theaters of war that encompassed it: Europe, Mediterranean, Middle East?

Now, what do you mean by 'incomptent colonisation'? In the areas you are talking about the UK didn't have colonies - just League of Nations Mandates. Still, that aside - what is the thrust of your point? Or are you just content to throw out assertions with no facts?

As to your statement that the UK just 'allowed the various sides to start shooting' - can you provide us with any factual material on that. A nice little letter with 'Ok chaps, you can shoot each other now.' contained within would do.


My response was intentionally over-the-top. It is obviously a gloss of history, but I always get annoyed at holier-than-thou Brits who like to think they can judge others after so thoroughly screwing things up themselves.

And yes the quotas in the 1930's prevented thousands (millions?) of people from leaving Europe. Read up a bit on things like the Kindertransports where children were put on boats without their parents because it was more likely that the British would allow a boat full of children through, but they didn't want the adults.

I'm also glad to hear that pre-1948 Palestine was merely a League of Nation Mandate. I assume the fact the its borders were policed by British soldiers and British soldiers where controlled much of the country was merely incidental.

I'm not looking for a detailed argument of history here. It's very possible to write out a book in a comments thread. I'd just appreciate it if UK citizens accepted some responsibility for the current problems in the Middle East while not trying to demonize only one party.


"holier-than-thou Brits who like to think they can judge others after so thoroughly screwing things up themselves."

So basically Brits don't have a right to an opinion, is that what you're saying?

As to the 'screwing up' - could anyone have done a better job given the circumstances?

"And yes the quotas in the 1930's prevented thousands (millions?) of people from leaving Europe. Read up a bit on things like the Kindertransports where children were put on boats without their parents because it was more likely that the British would allow a boat full of children through, but they didn't want the adults."

I'll note there were not only quotas for Palestine, but for the USA, Ireland and other countries. Are they holier-than-thou too?

Also, the Kindertransport it was an official programme to save German and Austrian Jewish children in 1938-39 by offering them refuge in the UK. There's a statue commemorating this at Liverpool Street Station in London. The plaque, from surviving Kindeertransport members reads:

'In deep gratitude to the people and Parliament of the United Kingdom for saving the lives of 10,000 Jewish and other children who fled to this country from Nazi persecution on the Kindertransport 1938-1939'

"I assume the fact the its borders were policed by British soldiers and British soldiers where controlled much of the country was merely incidental."

That's because the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine and Transjordan was the responsibility of the UK. However, it was not part of the Empire - please try and read a history book or two.

"I'd just appreciate it if UK citizens accepted some responsibility for the current problems in the Middle East while not trying to demonize only one party."

There's lots of blame to go around. I'm a UK citizen, born in the late 60's - what responsibility should I shoulder? Also, I do not demonise only one party to the conflict.

What's your nationality? Will we have a check to see what your nation's wrongdoings are in the Middle East? Should we do this for all and sundry?

Yes other countries had quotas and made other bad decisions, but it's a certain segment of the modern UK population that seems to try to whitewash their history and pick sides as if they had no responsibility. From your comments here, I'm not sure you fit in that group, but the author of this post certainly does.
I'm a US citizen and the US had its own share of problems, but this idiotic, "Let's boycott everything relating to Israel" attitude seems to have been avoided there while people seem to take it seriously in the UK.

I personally wouldn't exist if it weren't for the kinderstransport (some also went directly to British controlled Palestine), but a country can only be so proud of itself for letting children in and watching the parents die.

I also want to add that we seem to mostly agree on the history. You seem to take comfort that Britain was merely policing Palestine because of the League of Nations Mandate rather than being a formal part of the Empire while I see little functional difference.

Still, as someone who seems to care about history and accuracy, I'm curious if SciencePunk's original post and the ridiculously selective picking of science discoveries bothered you. I suspect my own opinion of current events is more biased towards Israel than yours, but, as with most other commenters here, I hope you also see the pointlessness and even potential harm of this type of boycott.

dd, I think you're projecting too many of your own prejudices into my post.

I chose to highlight innovations in Israeli military tech specifically because they were most relevant to the discussion. My questions specifically addressed whether an event celebrating these scientific advances was inseparable from the politics of their usage, because this was the issue raised in the letter to the Guardian.

My views on the Middle East conflict are not concrete, are not relevant to this discussion and consequently are not expressed in it. So I'm a little mystified as to how you've come to the conclusion that I'm trying to whitewash history and pick sides.

I intended to provoke a discussion on the acceptance of scientific research and where the line might be drawn by researchers isolating themselves ethically from the application of their work. I'm happy to let the debate develop naturally along the lines the readers choose but please don't mistake their opinions, or your own, for mine.

By the same token, do you believe that it is appropriate to ban all American scientists from international science conventions, based on America's involvement in the Iraq war or other actions viewed as objectionable. Remember, these Israelis are being banned, no matter their political beliefs. So even if you personally oppose the Iraq war or Abu Ghraib or whatever, you would still be barred.

Our national museums should not be a political forum for any ideology, be it Zionist, National Front or Facist. I wonder what the Zionist lobby would have to say if the Science Museum wanted to do an event on innovative discoveries made from Nazi era science?

Our national museums should not be a political forum for any ideology, be it Zionist, National Front or Facist.

Which raises the interesting point, which is more political - boycotting these events or allowing them to continue?

Frank, Sorry for "projecting" my opinions on your post. I foolishly thought that a post entitled, "Call on museums to cancel 'Israel Day of Science'" followed by nothing saying you were questioning that statement other than a cherry-picked list research with military applications, two questions, and the text of the petition meant that you supported the goals of the petition.

Seriously, I'm glad to hear that your opinions aren't in lock-step with the petition, but I do hope you realize that your original post did not exactly state this view clearly making my projection a reasonable assumption. I also don't seem to be the only commenter who made this assumption based on your original post.

On the broader question, I think science is science and I think it would greatly enrich science education to put not only names, but locations to different discoveries. I'd love to see rotating exhibits talking about the scientific contributions (historical and modern) of different countries. There may be a valid critique of exceptionalism if Israel is the only country profiled, but that is probably at least because someone is bankrolling the show. Unfortunately funding is an issue with museums and new exhibits need support, but I assume other countries might be willing to backroll these types of exhibits too, if given the opportunity.

As for military applications, there are regular exhibits on airplanes, missiles, gun technology, suits of armor, catapults, and many other war devices in science and history museums across the world. These are part of science and part of education and I see few people protesting them.

Considering Nazi science, one can find V2 rockets in many museums so yes, when there was innovation, they have a place in science and history museums. Nazi biological science was not science and it was not innovation. It would be appropriate in a museum as part of a discussion of science ethics and history, but there's really no innovation to present.

Would those defending this Israeli propaganda exercise please ask themselves, just what level of atrocity by the IDF against a civilian population would be sufficient for you to say, "Stop!"?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink

I work at the Manchester museum. I was working today when this event was going on. They weren't talking military technology, just biology, medicine, particle physics, and the like. It was all pretty much basic research stuff.