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Harvard biotechnology conference whitewashes Israeli occupation

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This past week, Harvard’s program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) hosted a conference titled “The Molecularization of Identity: Science and Subjectivity in the 21st Century” (the full program is available). It was presented as an ordinary STS meeting whose goal was to explore the “complex ways in which the molecular realm is an emerging site for constituting human identities in the 21st century.” The conference’s premise was that biotechnology is “changing the way we imagine race, gender, kinship, citizenship, and disease risk” – and that this is “impacting the ways in which people are governed, how lives are lived, how groups are known, and how power is exercised.”

But this wasn’t an ordinary conference about the intersection of science and society. It was sponsored by The Israel Institute and The Safra Center for Ethics at Tel-Aviv University. Many of the speakers and the participants were Israeli academics who focused on Jewish/Israeli identity, a theme of the conference, from a narrow Jewish-Israeli perspective.

The Israeli occupation (let alone the viewpoints of Palestinians) was absent from the talks concerning Israel. The speakers who presented on Israel were either Israeli Jews, or otherwise framed their talk from that perspective. There was not a single Palestinian speaker.

Political topics were at the core of the conference, as is clear from the meeting’s description. In presentations that didn’t concern Israel, there was lively discussion about the ways emerging biotechnologies can privilege the rich and the white. It’s only when it came to Israel/Palestine that certain political lines couldn’t be crossed.

Perhaps it was considered impolite for the hosts to discuss the Israeli occupation in the presence of so many Israeli guests. It might have also offended the Israeli institutions who funded the meeting. As Noam Chomsky said of certain Harvard academics, they’re in part trained to “have polite conversations without talking about serious topics, but of course indicating that you could talk about serious topics if you were so vulgar as to actually do it.”

Some of the Israeli academics who attended are obviously aware of the brutality and scope of the Israeli occupation. Snait Gissis, for example, a veteran activist of the Israeli left who has been targeted by right-wing groups, participated in the meeting.

Therein lies the problem. The conference participants were able to set aside the single most important issue that looms over their studies. They instead approached matters from an internalist Israeli perspective, studying Israel as if it was some advanced European nation. That move, whether driven by ignorance or politeness, in effect whitewashes Israel’s occupation.

The refusal to confront the Israeli occupation and state discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel also produces poor scholarship in this case. It’s impossible to understand the debate in Israel concerning biometric IDs, as one researcher who worked at Bar-Ilan tried, without recognizing how these IDs are used to surveil Palestinians – and without considering the financial interests of companies like Hewlett-Packard that collaborate with Israel to develop biometric surveillance. It’s also absurd to dissect how “Jewish kinship” is defined in Israeli society without taking into account the Israeli government’s massive efforts to “solve” what they call “the demographic problem” – i.e., the existence of too many Palestinians – through expulsion and other forms of ethnic cleansing. It is similarly hollow to examine the Israeli law of return for Jews by comparing it to German law, without even noting the hotly contested issue of law of return for displaced Palestinians. Yet all of this was attempted, with the pretense of nuanced academic discourse, in this conference.

I wrote to the co-organizers of the conference, Ruha Benjamin (Princeton University) and Ian McGonigle (Harvard University), to point this out. An abridged version of the letter is below.

To:  Ruha Benjamin, Ian McGonigle

Date:  Sat, Apr 30, 2016 at 5:48 PM

Subject:  Blind eye to Palestine in HarvardSTS conference

Hi Ruha and Ian,

I’m writing to say I was extremely disappointed and disturbed by today’s Harvard STS conference.

In the “Privacy” session, Michelle Spektor’s talk focused on biometrics.  It neglected to mention the brutal Israeli occupation, now nearing its 50th anniversary, and the discriminatory state laws against Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.  Surveillance is a crucial aspect of this machinery of oppression.  This is why in the summer of 2014, the U.S. Presbyterian Church divested from Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Motorola, who develop surveillance technologies for the Israeli government to monitor Palestinians.  HP manufactures the biometric IDs used to monitor Palestinians and even has a subsidiary company in the settlements [1].  We also saw the role of surveillance early this year following the shooting in Tel-Aviv, after which Palestinians who hold Israeli IDs had their dorms and apartments searched.

Spektor’s talk was given from an entirely inward-looking Israeli perspective.  How can we talk about biometric IDs without understanding that these technologies are designed to surveil Palestinians and tighten the grip of Israel’s occupation?  How can we have this conversation without considering who manufactures and profits from these technologies?  The talk sounded very sophisticated and nuanced when it came to the discourse of privacy.  Yet the enormous, simple and ugly truth was omitted.  This whitewashes the Israeli government’s crimes against the Palestinians and erases the Palestinian viewpoint.  She also entertained, as if legitimate, the ludicrous hypothesis that biometrics are being developed because of the unreliability of Israeli IDs – which she referred to as just “laminated pieces of plastic”.  (Again, glossing over Israel’s elaborate encoding of ethnicity and race in the ID system – see [2]).  This is as credible as the claim that there’s widespread voter fraud in the US, which as you know is used to introduce laws that disenfranchise (mostly black) voters.  The parallels between the Palestinian struggle and the Black struggle at various points in American history are strong and important.

I’m not surprised that this study came out of Bar-Ilan University, which has a rich record of doing Hasbara for the Israeli government.  Spektor was studying Israel like it’s yet another European nation that faces the issues of civilian privacy in a technologically advanced age.  This is exactly how the Israeli government would want it to be perceived.

Sadly, Spektor’s talk was representative of the conference.  When it came to Israel/Palestine, we got a narrow Israeli viewpoint with glaring omissions and distortions.  Not to mention the fact that not a single Palestinian, or Palestinian citizen of Israel, spoke at this conference.

The “Kinship” panel had similar issues.  It fixated on the “positive” or “constructive” account of Jewish identity/kinship.  I didn’t hear a word about occupation, expulsion, home demolitions – or Israel’s view of Palestinians as a “demographic problem” to be solved.  In the state of Israel, kinship is defined in part by a “negative”: by eliminating the Palestinian inhabitants through land theft, expulsion and other forms of ethnic cleansing.  For example, a law was recently proposed to expel and revoke the IDs of Palestinians who had family members accused of engaging in terror.  It’s impossible to understand how “kinship” functions in Israel by only analyzing the nitty gritty of the procedures that determine who is Jewish by some DNA test and associated obscure laws.  While Dani Kranz acknowledged the arbitrary nature of this complex and mostly secretive bureaucracy, she passionately pleaded that Israel needs an immigration policy so we (i.e. Israelis) don’t have to pay so much in taxes for individual court cases.  Again, the inward-looking, Jewish Israeli-centric perspective.  Israel cannot have an “immigration policy” while enacting an enormous operation of differential rule over the Palestinians, and while Netanyahu and his ministers are desperately trying to pass a discriminatory law that certifies Israel as the national Jewish homeland.  It simply does not compute.

I raised my hand in both the Kinship and Privacy sessions to say this in person, but understandably didn’t get called on as there were many questions.

Please note that my issue with this conference is not from a ‘pro-BDS’ stand.  From that viewpoint, this conference is illegitimate by design, but this isn’t my position.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the first day of the conference, but judging by the speakers and the tone of today I can’t imagine it was any different.


[1] HP’s role in biometric surveillance:

“Technologies of control: the case of Hewlett Packard (HP)”

“HP spins Israeli checkpoints role as reducing “friction” with Palestinians”

“Why Hewlett-Packard?”

“The Presbyterian Church’s All-American Divestment from the Israeli Occupation”

[2] “Identity Crisis: The Israeli ID System” (Visualizing Palestine)

Yarden Katz

Yarden Katz is a fellow in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

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8 Responses

  1. lyn117 on May 2, 2016, 3:54 pm

    The idea of studying genetics in order to determine who has certain political privileges and who doesn’t, as in the “kinship” talk, seems racist to the core. Forgive me for bringing in the nazi reference, but it seems exactly what the nazis would have loved to do to achieve racial purity.

    • Stephen Shenfield on May 4, 2016, 5:36 am

      Except that the more the Zionists study genetics the more they discover that it does not support their racist preconceptions. Just as the Nazis would have, if genetics had existed in their day, because they and the Zionists share the key preconception that Jews constitute a distinct racial group. They would also discover that genetically the Palestinians are more Jewish than many Jews. Genetics could conceivably be used to design a system of political privileges, but it cannot be used to justify the existing distribution of privilege.

  2. Keith on May 2, 2016, 5:31 pm

    Harvard lies at the very center of the imperial doctrinal system. Israel is a very important part of empire, not the least because American Jewish Zionists are well represented within the imperial system of legitimization and control, and sufficiently organized and disciplined so as to exert pressure beyond their numbers. As such, it is no more conceivable that Harvard would criticize Israel than it would seriously criticize empire. One recent example of Harvard perfidy is provided by the warm reception given a talk by Rwandan genocidaire Paul Kagame, a US ally and favorite of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. A brief quote followed by a link to a must read article.

    “All of which is chilling background for Kagame’s speech at liberal Harvard and the warm response it received there. In a short and manifestly non-eloquent speech, the Rwandan butcher informed his top-of-the-Ivy League listeners that Rwanda defies the “chicken-and-egg argument about development versus democracy.” (Paul Street)

  3. JWalters on May 2, 2016, 7:58 pm

    Nothing new here. Last night was the White House Correspondents Dinner, looked on in Israel as the White House Slaves Dinner. There was a brief recognition of that pesky slave Sanders, who had alluded to Israel’s last massacre in Gaza (60 Sandy Hooks in deaths, plus 10,000 injured). And some attendees had praised Sanders for those courageous comments. But this night he didn’t mention the tyranny, nor did any of the slave reporters in attendance. All quiet on the western front.

  4. hophmi on May 3, 2016, 10:29 am

    LOL. Or, it was a meeting to discuss an biotechnology issue. Believe it or not, it’s unusual to discuss politics at Biotechnology conference. In fact, if I decided to attend such a conference and insisted that the participants discuss Chinese prison practices, I’d probably be thrown out of the room. I guess if something like this were organized by a France company or university, you’d be complaining that it was whitewashing French antisemitism and Islamophobia, right?

  5. JWalters on May 3, 2016, 5:51 pm

    ” it’s unusual to discuss politics at Biotechnology conference”

    Unless the technology is being developed for a political purpose.

  6. MaxNarr on May 4, 2016, 11:24 am

    You can’t stop science. Antisemitism doesn’t trump academics. You lose.

    • Mooser on May 4, 2016, 3:51 pm

      “You can’t stop science. Antisemitism doesn’t trump academics. You lose.”

      “MaxNarr” what we need is a strict eugenics program so we can keep our genetic advantage. Dilution is no solution!

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