| University professors and activists are calling on the Italian government to cancel joint research funding with Israel unless the country ceases its bombardment of Palestinian civilians | MR Online

Italian scholars demand a stop to collaboration with Israeli scientists

Originally published: Il manifesto on April 13, 2024 by Andrea Capocci (more by Il manifesto)  | (Posted Apr 15, 2024)

A controversial call for applications by the Ministry for Universities to fund joint research between Italy and Israel in areas of potential military use expired on Tuesday, while initiatives calling on Italian universities to stop such collaboration are multiplying.

The appeal signed by university professors and researchers to stop the collaboration has reached 2,500 signatures, in addition to receiving support from the Academic Senate of the University of Turin and the Scuola Normale of Pisa.

According to those behind the appeal, the Israeli army’s so-called “withdrawal” from southern Gaza is not a reason to stop their mobilization. On the contrary, the events of the past few days have strengthened the argument in favor of the initiative, showing that Israeli universities are on the front lines of the Gaza conflict.

In recent days, Minister for Research and Universities Anna Maria Bernini tried to tamp down the controversy with seemingly well-intentioned words: “Collaborations between universities are channels for dialogue, even with dictatorial regimes, such as China, Iran, North Korea etc.,” she said.

Scientific research has nothing to do with taking sides between two parties in a conflict.

This is an unrealistically rose-tinted view of the scientific community, which, unfortunately, cannot live sheltered from the conflicts that animate the society around it. With the full support of all Western governments, sanctions against Russian universities have been adopted by national and international research bodies such as the Italian National Council for Research, CERN and the European Space Agency. The European Association of Universities, which includes the Italian ones, has suspended all 14 Russian universities that were members.

Furthermore, the Israeli universities are siding with the Netanyahu government–at least if we look at the official positions taken by their top leadership. There is still debate among professors, researchers and students, but any dissent comes at a high price. Israeli-Palestinian professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian was suspended from teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for criticizing the military operations in Gaza, leading to protests from both the international community and Israeli civil rights groups.

The army’s use of artificial intelligence in the form of the Lavender system, revealed by an investigation by the publications +972 and Local Call published by il manifesto, also directly implicates universities. As the investigation showed, Lavender was presented at Tel Aviv University during “Artificial Intelligence Week,” an event organized by the university in 2023. The speaker was the mysterious “Colonel Yoav,” commander of the secret Data Science and AI center of the Israeli Army’s Unit 8200.

Furthermore, one can hardly deem a university such as Ariel University, established in an illegal West Bank colony and which refuses access to Palestinians, to be a bridge for dialogue. The European Union has already excluded it from funding for joint research, without anyone accusing Brussels of anti-Semitism.

While it’s true, as Minister Bernini argues, that the etymology of “universitas” comes from a cosmopolitan lineage that dates back to the Middle Ages and should be defended, it is equally true that scientific research activity is by no means neutral and always responds to social and economic interests: even–and perhaps especially–when these are not made explicit.

This does not make every scientist an instrument of political and military power; however, it does require them to assess the fallout from their research and the values they convey, so that they do not contradict the principle of universality on which their freedom and autonomy are based in the first place.

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