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We don’t usually delve into war and politics here in The Checkup, but this week is an exception. The spreading human devastation of the Israel-Gaza conflict has led to tensions and strife in the scientific community. Some of the academic biologists whose work we follow have already had their careers damaged from the blowback to their online statements. Reactions to the war are also raising questions about freedom of speech, and of thought—issues that are core to science.
On October 7, Hamas—the organization in command of the Gaza Strip, and which is designated a terrorist group by the US—launched a surprise attack into Israel, during which it killed more than 1,400 people and took hostages. Israel has been responding with a campaign of air strikes on Gaza that are rapidly raising the body count, with thousands more killed, according to news reports.
For a nation of fewer than 10 million, Israel plays an outsize role in science and medicine. It’s a land of biotech startups, the nation where covid-19 vaccines were first tried at scale, and home to many prominent biologists, among them Jacob Hanna, a stem-cell expert whose work we have covered and whose predictions about the direction of cutting-edge science I value.
Hanna is an Israeli citizen and a professor at the state-funded Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. But he’s also a Palestinian from a Christian background whose social media profile has an image saying “F*ck the Occupation” as well as “Arab and Jews refuse to be enemies.”
A day after the attack, Hanna posted a public comment: “Barbarism has many forms. Occupation & 18 year old siege is also one of them,” he wrote, in a reference to the confinement of Palestinians to Gaza.
Hanna immediately came under withering scrutiny from other scientists, including some at his university. Why wasn’t he first and foremost condemning Hamas? Researchers questioned whether he should keep his funding, and Jonathan Kipnis, an immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said Hanna should leave Israel if he doesn’t like it.
“Maybe then he should move to Gaza and be the best scientist there and support his brethren,” Kipnis wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. (Kipnis would later tell me, “It was a stupid tweet of mine, which I deleted and apologized.”)
To Hanna, the replies were “racist and condescending,” and he hasn’t changed his views. (He is against all violence and calls Hamas a "terrible violent and terrorist organization.") But he also doesn’t want to only single out Hamas. Doing so, he says, would just be playing what he calls “the condemnation games” with people who are themselves unwilling to denounce Israel’s past actions toward Palestinians.
But the pressure campaign has done its work. Hanna deleted his post about barbarism and several others. “I decided I don’t want politics on my feed anymore, and I don’t want fights,” he told me. “The posts were not intended to provoke fights. l was airing my thoughts and my frustration.”
Doing that has become risky. Some Israeli universities have said they will show “zero tolerance” for anyone who expresses “support for terrorism,” and there are reports of Arab Israeli students being disciplined for posts on social media sites.
They want these organizations to acknowledge the massacre by Hamas. And they have a point. The Israeli military this week held a screening for journalists of uncensored footage from the attack, with scenes of people being dragged from cars, killed in their homes, or shot while hiding under tables.
The push to elicit condemnations of Hamas has been effective, causing the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, San Diego, among others, to issue stronger statements. And the campaign continues. About 50 researchers at the university where Hanna works, for instance, signed a draft letter to the American Association for Cancer Research after it issued a vague statement on the conflict. In the reply, which we’ve seen, the Israeli researchers complain that the statement “bluntly fails to acknowledge the atrocities and their perpetrators. For example, the words “Hamas,” “Islamic Jihad,” or “terror attack” are not even included in the letter.”
It’s not as if scientists don’t ever take sides in political conflict. At the annual meeting of the European Society for Gene and Cell Therapy, which is being held in Brussels this week, the society is not accepting attendees whose entry is paid for by institutions in Russia or Belarus, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We know that many academics in Russia are opposed to the war in Ukraine,” the society says. “But we cannot accept your registration.”
Josh Dubnau, a geneticist at Stony Brook University, told me I was making a mistake in comparing the two situations. “Side-taking in Ukraine means denouncing an occupation,” he says. “The Ukrainians who are fighting back are fighting an army from a foreign nation that is targeting civilians.”
In Israel and Gaza, he says, there is no such moral clarity, as both sides are killing civilians. Dubnau says the issue he’s concerned with is the efforts to “censure speech” of those scientists who are “criticizing Israeli atrocities.”
“It’s a kind of McCarthyism,” he believes, referring to the scare over communists in the 1950s in the US, which led to blacklists in Hollywood and at universities.
If so, one its first victims may be fruit fly biologist Michael Eisen, a prominent and outspoken advocate of “open” publishing, and—until this week—the editor of the influential journal eLife.
On October 14, Eisen posted a satirical article from the Onion titled “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas.” He added a summary of his own views in his post on X: “The Onion speaks with more courage, insight and moral clarity than the leaders of every academic institution put together. I wish there were a @TheOnion university.”
In response, eLife, which is backed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, fired him on Tuesday. In a statement, it said Eisen had previously been warned about his (notoriously brash) communication style, and that a “further incidence of this behavior” had led to the decision.
The situation at eLife, which depends on university scientists as editors, has led to a flurry of resignations—among both Eisen’s supporters and those who thought his comments amounted to intimidation of Israelis.
Fede Pelisch, a member of eLife’s board, said on Wednesday he would resign because he disagreed with the decision to fire Eisen. In his own open letter, Pelisch says: “I have heard numerous concerns from people that now do not feel comfortable voicing their opinion if it does not conform to the orthodoxy.” He believes that “people feel silenced,” which he calls a “very harmful consequence for a Journal that is meant to ‘promote a research culture that values openness, integrity and equity, diversity and inclusion.”
So what are the consequences for science? Back in Israel, Hanna says his lab is at half speed as the conflict continues. And he’s still hurting, too. The brother of one of his students was killed in an air strike on a church in Gaza, he says. When I asked him for details about how biology research could be further affected in Israel, he wrote me this:
“To my Israeli Jewish friends and colleagues in academia and biotech. Jealous of you that you are allowed to express feelings of pain and identification with your victimized innocent people without being put under house arrest and without being threatened with harm and cancellation. The threat of cancellation is relevant to companies, labs, individual scientists or all the above combined through funding, investment, recruiting. In the longer term, what is the ability of such ecosystem to become really international and diverse to attract talent, or is it sending signals of fascism and McCarthyism that might occasionally erupt, which means many don’t want to be part of such a system.”
Sadly, this war is likely still in its early days. Yesterday, it was revealed that Israel had briefly sent tanks into the Gaza Strip, and a ground invasion seems imminent. As the violence escalates, so will the fallout.
From our archives
Technology Review is an editorially independent publication of MIT. You can read or listen to MIT president Sally Kornbluth’s October 10 statement on events in the Middle East here: “Our community and the violence in Israel and Gaza.”
Small, high-tech, and communitarian—that’s why Israel was such an important player in covid-19 early on. The country was first to try vaccinating all its citizens, and in 2021, we reported on how it instituted a “green pass” system to encourage reopening.
When he’s not being told to quiet down, Jacob Hanna is turning stem cells into super-realistic models of human embryos. He even started a company to grow these synthetic embryo for several weeks and then collect their primitive organs for transplant medicine. I wrote about the startup, called Renewal Bio, and its controversial concepts last year.
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