Prof. Eugene Koonin, one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, recently visited Israel as a gesture of solidarity and even took the time to volunteer in the Gaza border communities that came under attack on October 7.
Koonin is among the scientists who discovered the CRISPR mechanism, the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology. The discovery is regarded as a revolution in medicine.
The conference explored the connections between evolution, the development of language, and machine learning. Turing Award recipient Prof. Shafi Goldwasser of UC Berkeley also attended.
Conference organizer Prof. Sagi Snir, from the Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology at the University of Haifa, later accompanied Koonin for a day of volunteer work in the Gaza border region.
“I realize this is a symbolic act, but symbols have their importance. It’s important to me to show solidarity with Israelis, with those who were killed and injured — and sadly there are so many of them,” Koonin said.
“There are lots of academic conferences, some of them important and some less so. This conference is particularly important for me, because it conveys the message that even at this time, we are continuing our scientific work, continuing to think about the future. We won’t let terrorism stop us.”
Koonin addressed the mass anti-Israel protests that have been sweeping US college campuses, calling them “unacceptable.”
“As far as I know, [the protests] in no way reflect the opinions of American academia. Unfortunately, the groups that oppose Israel are very vocal, but they’re certainly not the majority. Among my colleagues and people I speak to, I hear a lot of support for Israel. Of course, many of them are Jews, so my position may be a bit biased,” he noted.
He also expressed his disappointment over the failure of the presidents of Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to condemn antisemitism on campus during the now infamous Congressional hearing on December 5.
“I can understand that they don’t want to violate other people’s freedom of expression, but it bothers me that I haven’t heard their condemnation of terrorism enough,” Koonin said.
“I came here to declare proudly that I stand by Israel.”