Israel: When we distributed an open letter calling on Australian Professor Alison Bashford to reconsider accepting Israel’s Dan David Prize, we expected overwhelming support for our call from academics around the world. We were right. More than 300 scholars and researchers have signed up so far, and the list of signatories continues to grow.
Bashford is one of seven recipients of the award, which was awarded this year for scientific contributions in the field of public health and medicine. The $ 3 million windfall award will be divided among the seven: $ 1 million will go to Anthony Fauci, the prominent contagious disease expert and US presidential adviser; $ 1 million is shared by three scientists for contributions to molecular medicine; and $ 1 million is shared between Bashford, who studies medicine and health history as it relates to the world and environmental history, Keith Wailoo, who works on race, science and health equality in the US, and Katherine Park, who studies medieval and Renaissance study medicine.
The arguments against accepting the prize money apply to all seven recipients, but we felt we had a particular obligation and opportunity to appeal to Bashford as Australian researchers.
The chairman of the Dan David Foundation, Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, announced the award, saying that the choice of scientific fields was influenced by the pandemic’s impact on all aspects of life.
The award comes at a time when Israel is celebrating its remarkable progress in vaccinating its population. The country ranks first in the world in terms of the percentage of population vaccinated. The government recently said that about half of Israel’s citizens took the first dose and 35 percent the second dose.
But as with other scientific achievements that Israel has celebrated, this one comes against the backdrop of Palestinian oppression. As the Israeli government is already boasting of a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases in the West Bank occupied by Israel, they are soaring. Palestinians will be locked up once again to control the outbreak because there was no steady supply of vaccines for them.
Israel has been refusing to vaccinate Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank for months, though that is its legal responsibility under the Fourth Geneva Convention. In March 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Michael Lynk, reminded Israel in a statement that ‘the legal duty enshrined in Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention requires Israel to the occupying power, must ensure that all the necessary preventive measures available are used to combat the spread of infectious diseases and epidemics”.
However, Israel not only blocks the delivery of vaccines to the Palestinians but also sends excess doses to countries such as Honduras, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, as a reward for political favors, such as their promises to relocate or open their embassies to Jerusalem Embassy branches there.
Perhaps it was easy to forget the five million Palestinians under full Israeli occupation, without any significant protection from the pandemic and permanently subject to the serious expropriation, arbitrarily, from the excitement that we have such a considerable amount of money and idealistic celebrations of human progress won it: imprisonment, extrajudicial murder, exile, remorse and oppression imposed on them by Israel.
But nothing compels any of the Dan David laureates to accept the award. This is in fact, contrary to the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions and cultural activities that obscure Israel’s apartheid policies.
The award-winning Tel Aviv University is an essential contribution to Israel’s ongoing war effort against Palestinians, through its structural ties with Israel’s military and political architecture, including pardons and scholarships for Israeli soldiers and his complicity in the violent occupation of Palestinian land.
There is already a precedent for rejecting the award. In 2018, British historian Catherine Hall turned down the honor in what she described as ‘an independent political choice’ – a choice that seemed amazing to many with her progressive academic work on gender history, race, and slavery.
Some argue that academic boycotts violate academic freedom’ and, therefore, should be rejected. But as many have repeatedly argued, including both of us, it justifies the obligation to boycott those who violate human rights or those who are part of a system that violates human rights. Researchers justify the moral and political choice not to associate with it.
It said it is striking about the Dan David Prize that it falls outside any argument for ‘academic freedom.’ No one’s academic freedom is violated by not accepting prize money. As a result, there is simply no principled reason for academics not to do as their Palestinian colleagues keep asking, and reject the award.
This is, even more, the case when we look at the conclusions some of the laureates have drawn in their own research.
In his 2014 book, Pain: A Political History, for example, Wailoo discusses how people with pain often ‘watch as their specific complaints … are dragged along and defined by the broader political controversies of the time’. He laments the fact that people with pain become ‘props’ in a ‘political theater.’
Palestinians will agree. Americans “have a cultural problem understanding the pain of others,” Wailoo says, stressing the need to look “critically and carefully” at those who judge the pain of others.
Despite the empathy with the suffering he expresses in his book, Wailoo still feels able to accept an award from the heart of the political and academic institution that brutally oppresses Palestinians, and is now using a global pandemic to end the ethnic cleansing of ‘ a whole people.
Acceptance of the award is also contrary to what Bashford wrote and said as a scholar. Her research examines, among other things, the segregation of populations, for example, through quarantine, a measure she describes in her book, Imperial Hygiene, from 2003, ‘as both hygienic – that is, as part of public health – and races – as part of the systems and cultures of race management ”. In light of this, one has to wonder how Bashford will view the vaccine apartheid that Israel is currently practicing.
In a 2003 essay with Carolyn Strange, Bashford noted that ‘it is difficult to imagine the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa without the chorus of international calls for the release of high-ranking prisoners on Robben Island.’ As for participating in a call for an end to apartheid in Israel, Bashford seems to have forgotten her own lesson.
Israel’s academic institutions are undoubtedly mighty pillars on which the oppression of the state stands. Israeli universities provide the state with science, military technology, and strategic and ideological instruments that strengthen and justify its occupation regime and apartheid.
Acceptance of the award will undoubtedly yield financial gains. Still, the moral cost will be too high because it places the recipients on the wrong side of history, supporting and whitewashing a system of oppression, injustice, and tyranny.