The Science Museum, one of Britain's most prestigious public institutions, was embroiled in a row last night after being accused of promoting Israeli universities whose research was used in the country's military campaign in Gaza.
More than 400 academics, a Nobel laureate and the former chair of the Science Select Committee called on the museum to cancel workshops due to be held this week that promote Israeli scientific achievements to schoolchildren.
The critics plan to picket the event and accused the museum of promoting scientists and universities who are "complicit in the Israeli occupation and in the policies and weaponry recently deployed to such disastrous effect in Gaza".
Many of the critics were behind a campaign in 2002 to impose an academic boycott on Israel. That campaign failed but it provoked debate worldwide over whether Israeli academics should be penalised for the actions of their government.
Forty professors are among the signatories who want the workshops cancelled. They include Jonathan Rosenhead from the London School of Economics, who is leading the protest, Steven Rose from the Open University and the architect and historian Charles Jencks. The Zionist Federation is running the "educational seminars" at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry today and at the Science Museum on Thursday.
The federation's chair, Andrew Balcombe, said that they were purely educational and non-political. "We are proud to be running an event like this. It's an educational event, not a political one in any way, shape or form. It's merely to inform people of the contribution that Israel has made to science and technology ... I'm not aware of any connection between defence and university research, and none that is stronger than in any other countries."
Ian Gibson MP, the former chairman of the House of Commons Science Select Committee, the Booker-shortlisted writer Ahdaf Soueif, the architect Walter Hain, and the Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire also signed a petition against the workshops. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine organised the petition.
The Science Museum said that the event had been planned for nearly a year and "has no political theme". A statement added: "Scientists speaking at the event include a marine biologist, a physicist who works on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern [Switzerland], a nanotechnology expert, a water scientist and a geneticist ... Having considered the issue very carefully, and while fully respecting the right for everyone to express their views, [we] believe that not to proceed with the event would mean taking a political stand, which would be wholly inappropriate."
The "Israel Day of Science" seminars showcase the work of seven universities for 1,200 largely non-Jewish secondary school pupils. The museums said that they were not co-hosting or sponsoring the events but had rented their corporate space to the federation.
Professor Rosenhead said that it did not exonerate them from blame. "If Robert Mugabe wanted to hire out these museums' spaces for a corporate event, we know what they would say."
He said that a host of evidence suggested a sinister link between Israel's scientists and defence policies. The most recent annual review of Tel Aviv University (TAU), he said, stated that "the Israeli 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 strategic studies, he added, is a serving major-general. The connections between these universities and defence was "very acute" he added.
Ms Soueif, meanwhile, believed the Science Museum's reputation would suffer as a result. The Museum attracts an average of 2.5 million visitors every year, with 36 per cent aged 16 or under. The museum attracts more than 300,000 pre-booked school children – more than any comparable attraction in the UK and more than the nearby Natural History Museum and the British Museum combined. It was founded in 1857 with profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and is renowned today for its historic collections and exhibitions.
"[The museum] gives its seal of approval to events that are held on its premises. Should the Science Museum give its imprimatur to Israel so soon after what Israel has done in Gaza? [So] should it, moreover, specifically allow its name and reputation to be used to give kudos to Israeli institutions directly involved with Israeli military like, for example, Tel Aviv University? It can no longer be seen as an institution of integrity," Ms Soueif said.
Jim Al-Khalili, a professor of physics at Surrey University and a television broadcaster, said that he was perturbed by the "insensitive timing" of the events, which come "at a time now when government can best rebuild the devastation of Gaza."
Dr Gibson, the Labour MP for Norwich North, said that science could not be divorced from politics to some extent, and none more so than in the Middle East. "Science is not neutral. It is part of the political process, and very much so in that part of the world," he said.
"I'm ashamed that the Science Museum has become associated with this issue." He said that the extensive research into defence could instead be ploughed into medical research, to help serve the injured in Gaza.
Professor Rose, who specialises in biology at the Open University, said that it would serve to alienate Muslim schoolchildren and "potentially turn them off science". "What is clear is the scientific enterprise of Israel is heavily directed towards it own military and economic survival," he said.
Hillel Shuval, Professor Emeritus of environmental sciences at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, accused the protesters of "bigotry and racism". He said: "I would ask why the people promoting this do not boycott American academics when America has been involved in far more violent action in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the British, who have been involved in violent actions in many parts of the world.
"Academic boycotts are promoted by people who know nothing about academic freedom, a basic tenet of which is that all people of all nations should be able to co-operate freely in the exchange of ideas."Reuse content