Dr. Andrew Marks: I felt the best way to combat the boycott of Israeli academics was to do something positive.Dr. Andrew R. Marks of New York is a very busy man. He is Chair of the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics and the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Molecular Cardiology, as well as Director of the Center for Molecular Cardiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

But as busy as he is, Dr. Marks has found the time to take on a personal mission: fighting those who would isolate and undermine Israel in the academic world.

Marks was one of the first people to come across a now-infamous petition circulating on the Web calling for a boycott of Israeli academics and scientists.

The petition was sparked by an open letter published in The Guardian on April 6, 2002, written by Steven and Hilary Rose. Signed by 120 university professors (90 from the UK), the letter called for a moratorium on cultural and research links with Israel at a European or national level “unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans…”

Mona Baker, Editorial Director of St. Jerome Publishing in the UK, actively supported the proposed boycott by dismissing two Israeli academics from their editorial posts at the prestigious journals Translation Studies Abstracts and The Translator.

It was after that incident that Marks took action. “Mona Baker kicking off the two Israeli editors from the board of her magazine really got to me. I am the editor-in-chief of a major biomedical research journal – The Journal of Clinical Investigation – and the thought of using politics as a basis for deciding who should be on my board is abhorrent to me. I felt the best way to combat the boycott of Israeli academics was to do something positive,” he told Israel21C.

That “something positive” was to support international academic meetings in Israel, “rather than attack the attackers,” explains Marks. And the support took shape when Marks founded International Academic Friends of Israel (IAFI). Today, in addition to his numerous other pursuits, he is also President of that not-for-profit organization “devoted to promoting and supporting the free and open exchange of ideas and information within the international academic community.” IAFI also “seeks to ensure that Israeli academics are included and accepted in global and scientific circles.”

Marks says that his colleagues’ response to IAFI was “extremely supportive. The issue of maintaining open access to scientific information and the open and free exchange of ideas is a universal one that appeals to the vast majority of academics.”

Asked why he is willing to invest the time and effort to initiate and oversee such an ambitious project, Marks replies, “Academic freedom and preserving open access to scientific information is a universal issue. The concept of excluding a specific group – in this case Israelis – based on politics potentially leads to very dangerous endpoints. The open exchange of ideas is fundamental to biomedical research and the advancement of learning and fighting human diseases. Who decides whether someone’s political viewpoints are acceptable in the scientific world? Politics simply cannot be used as a litmus test for who can and cannot pursue scientific research.”

IAFI works to keep the Israeli academic community in the mainstream of the international academic community. It operates under the direction of an international board comprised of leading academics, scientists and other supporters.

Appropriately, IAFI’s Executive Director, David Leshnick, is based in Jerusalem where he organizes conferences and meetings, develops relations with the Israeli political, philanthropic, academic and scientific communities, fundraises and speaks on IAFI?s behalf. After a two-year stint in the US as the Senior Development Executive in the Entertainment and Physicians’ Division of UJA-Federation of New York, Leshnick is back home.

Prior to moving to Israel in 1984, Leshnick served as the Director of Training for National UJA and was deeply involved in Jewish communal activities. Leshnick was among the hostages held in the takeover of the Bnai Brith Building in Washington, in March of 1977 and has written about his experience, and his personal reactions as a victim of Islamic terror.

For the past 20 years, in addition to marrying and raising a family in Jerusalem, Leshnick has combined his intense love of Israel with his livelihood, working as a tour guide. His eyes sparkle and his face lights up when he talks about IAFI.

Referring to professors Steven and Hilary Rose of the UK’s Open University, authors of the infamous letter-petition that appeared in The Guardian and instigated the European boycott, Leshnick says, “put simply, whether or not you agree with Israel, the issue is academic freedom and boycotting. To boycott anyone is against the principles of science and academia – academic freedom is the name of our game.”

“It is extremely important to fight the boycott,” he says, “because Israeli scientists and academics are at the forefront of important research and discoveries that save lives and improve the quality of life of people all over the world.”

Indeed, as reported in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph last year, Baroness Greenfield, the eminent neurobiologist and the director of the Royal Institution, the oldest independent research body in England, said that she was becoming increasingly “distressed” by the boycott. She added, “The obvious implication of the boycott is that if this is stopping medical research from being propagated, then the development of treatments and people’s lives could be affected. If it continues it will harm people in every sphere but in medical research lives are potentially at risk. It is a situation where everyone loses”.

The same article quoted the spokesman of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, who warned that vital research could be held up “if this boycott were to expand in reach.”

Ironically, those who favor the boycott, believing that in so doing they are contributing to the Palestinian cause, may be causing direct harm to the general welfare of Palestinians. The boycott against Israeli academics and scientists affects numerous Israeli-Palestinian collaborative projects.

As Philippe Busquin, European Union Commissioner for Research, wrote in a letter published in response to the boycott petition, “Concerning research, I draw your attention to the very positive effects played by the scientific co-operation conducted at the level of the European Union between European, Israeli and Palestinian institutions and scientists, and in which other Middle East countries participate as well. Indeed, this co-operation, which addresses critical regional issues such as agriculture or water management, is a concrete example of dialogue, in particular between Israelis and Palestinians, which is certainly more effective than many well-intentioned words without any concrete impact.”

IAFI works to combat the boycott by hosting and supporting international scientific meetings in Israel, bringing Israeli and global academic and scientific leaders together in other forums, promoting worldwide understanding and appreciation of Israeli scientific and academic achievements and creating research fellowships in the US for Israeli and Palestinian students.

In October 2002, IAFI co-sponsored one of the few international scientific meetings in Israel since the start of the second Intifada. Together with the Israeli Arteriosclerosis Society, they hosted more than 34 international speakers and over 120 researchers. In June 2003, along with the faculty of the University of Paris IV they co-sponsored a Stem Cell Biology conference in Jerusalem and the second international meeting of the Israeli Arteriosclerosis Society is slated for October 2003.

Through their network of international academics, IAFI has reached thousands of supporters of academic freedom and obtained immediate, pro-active support for petitions opposing divestiture in Israeli companies as well as those opposing severance of academic communication with Israeli scientists. IAFI’s efforts helped to ensure that the Columbia University Board of Trustees rejected a proposal to divest from Israel.

“There are many outstanding scientists and students in Israel. If they are isolated from the rest of the academic community we all lose,” says Marks.