Menahem Yaari – Friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, this is an exciting moment for me to see the presidents of two universities, a Palestinian university and an Israeli university, come together to sign a declaration of cooperation—that expresses a sentiment that will be the foundation for continued cooperation. It is no secret that the timing of the signing has coincided with the rebirth of an initiative to boycott Israeli scientists and scholars on the grounds of what Israel is doing in continuing the occupation of Palestinian territory. It is only natural that I should speak here, since I do have a slot of 15 minutes of your time, about boycotts.
I could say a few things specifically about why boycotting the Israeli science community is the wrong idea, particularly in view of the fact that the people toward whom this boycott is directed, the leaders of Israel, would like nothing better than to see the science and intellectual community being hit over the head, so this actually plays into the hands of these people.
I could also mention the initiative to which Professor Cohen-Tannoudji referred, IPSO (the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization). I am very happy and privileged to be part of it, and I point out that one of the first casualties of a boycott would be this particular initiative, for which we hold great hope.
In doing so, in pointing out the ramifications for my backyard, I would probably be acting in a manner that here in England could probably be described as unseemly: one should not talk about oneself and one’s troubles in public. But the general question of a boycott still warrants some discussion. It is a legitimate question to ask whether an academic or scientific boycott could be or is a legitimate tool in the quest for human rights. Since we are here in the meeting of the Human Rights Network, I say it is a legitimate question for the Human Rights Network to consider.
Let me say a few words with your permission on this more general question and leave the parochial context for some other time.
Let me remind you that when I go to buy tennis shoes and discover that these tennis shoes have been produced by little children in a sweatshop, I’m fully entitled to boycott these tennis shoes, to refrain from buying them as a way of expressing my own private displeasure at the manner in which these tennis shoes were produced. A boycott in that sense certainly is fully legitimate.
However, knowledge is not tennis shoes. The question is, Can the same principle be applied to knowledge, to scientific work, and to the work that scholars do, whether alone or together? For the sake of argument, let’s imagine a scientist in one of the boycotted universities, let’s say one of the two that are being boycotted in Israel. Let’s imagine for a moment that this