Media Analysis

Celebrate George Smith, humble scientist, supporter of Palestinian rights (and winner of the Nobel Prize)

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Three days ago George Smith, a biologist who worked at the University of Missouri for 40 years, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, sharing it with two other scientists. This is a cause for celebration for two reasons. Smith is a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights, including support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)– and we publish a couple of statements recognizing his political contribution below, including from the dean at Bir Zeit University.

There is a sense that Smith’s laurels are being shared by Palestinians. Haaretz led its report on Smith by noting that he is a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights and he is listed on the Canary Mission website, which is dedicated to destroying careers of those who express solidarity with Palestinians (and which the Forward disclosed this week was supported by the Jewish establishment in the Bay Area). Haaretz reports:

[Smith’s] most controversial moment came in 2015 when he attempted to teach an honors tutorial outside his academic field called “Perspective on Zionism.” The course was to have included as a central text “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” by Israeli historian and anti-Zionist Ilan Pappe, according to a report in the Columbia Daily Tribune that quoted Smith as defining his position as wishing “not for Israel’s Jewish population to be expelled,” but “an end to the discriminatory regime in Palestine.” He is opposed, he said, to “Jewish ethnic sovereignty over other peoples.”

Following protests by university alumni, pro-Israel student groups and an outcry by pro-Israel advocacy groups, his course was canceled, the cancellation attributed to “a lack of enrollment.”

Secondly, Smith is a humble person whose acceptance statement three days ago should be a model for all those who work to improve the human and planetary condition, as it emphasized his dependence on others’ achievements. As the Kansas City Star said, “faculty and students celebrated a man they call a kind and modest genius.” Here is a portion of that deeply moving statement:

“I should warn you I was 40 years a professor here. So when I see people lined up in rows in front of me, I’m triggered to give a lecture… I don’t know if I really want to say that I’m particularly proud personally of this award. Because as I think probably all Nobel laureates understand, they’re in the middle of a huge web of science, of influences, of ideas, of research, of results and stuff that impinge on them and emanate from them. So, phage display was a discovery of a technique that had first been discovered by other people in other contexts. Secondly, that absolutely depended on lines of work that had been gone before. I happened to be in the right place at the right time to put those things together.

“And I think also partly as a result of the fact that I didn’t succeed in patenting this, that it was open science i think it has been very influential in ways that I absolutely could not have anticipated. So let me just sway that that made that many of the medical breakthroughs that were mentioned are really not due to me at all. They’re due to one of the other winners, Greg Winter…

“I don’t know, I’m getting an honor that has been earned by a whole bunch of other people. And if we think of science as a web of influence, and so on, and one particular person is in the middle, that particular person can’t take full credit for it, you just have to realize that that person is a stand-in, is a representative of a whole field of knowledge.”

“And another thing that I think follows from that… No way you could predict in advance that this would be something important. Certainly I didn’t. And all the people in my lab that were working on this didn’t realize that it was something that….it would lead to medicines… It means that, science doesn’t work by picking winners and deciding that is the person who’s going to make a big breakthrough or make a lot of money or whatever. That’s not how science works. Science is a big community of people that are engaged in their work and in their teaching… We have to nurture a whole big community.

“A researcher like me who has only published 50 papers or so since I’ve been here. That’s not a big output, has taken a number of tacks of research and interest, somebody like me can flourish at Mizzou [University of Missouri]… Mizzou can be proud of nurturing that kind of intellectual community.”

The New York Times did not mention Smith’s political activities but did describe his intellectual achievement.

Dr. Smith and Dr. Winter were honored for another corner of synthetic biology, a field that emerged in the 1980s after technique called polymerase chain reaction enabled prolific duplication of DNA. In their work, harnessed the power of bacteriophages — viruses that infect bacteria — for applications that eventually contributed to novel drugs that treat a range of diseases.

Dr. Smith was looking to identify unknown genes that were the blueprints for the production of known peptides — short pieces of protein.

Bacteriophages, which consist of a piece of DNA within a capsule of proteins, proved handy tools. He embedded a variety of candidate genes within the phages’ DNA. The phages then added those proteins to their outer coating.

Jewish Voice for Peace tweeted:

Congratulations to JVP member, teacher, and BDS supporter George Smith for winning a Nobel Prize! Palestinian human rights are represented on #WorldTeachersDay

And here is the press release from the Palestinian BDS National Committee, received today:

Nobel Prize Winner Supports BDS Movement For Palestinian Rights, Ending Military Aid to Israel

October 5, 2018 —  A Nobel Prize has been awarded to George P. Smith, a renowned scientist and longtime advocate for Palestinian rights who supports the BDS movement and has called for an end to US military aid to Israel. The BDS movement congratulates Professor Smith.

Dr. Samia Botmeh, Dean at Birzeit University in the occupied Palestinian West Bank and leading activist in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), said:

“Congratulations to Professor George P. Smith for winning the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His principled commitments are evident in both his scientific work to protect human life and his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

“Professor Smith has consistently spoken out against Israel’s egregious violations of Palestinian human rights, and taken the extremely important step of calling on his government in the United States to end arms sales to the Israeli military. His call to end military aid to Israel is not only deeply principled, but a critical and effective form of solidarity that we hope to see multiplied. The US government should be investing in human needs, including health, education and dignified jobs, rather than giving Israel $3.8 billion in military aid a year to repress and destroy Palestinian life.

“Thank you Professor Smith for your inspiring solidarity.”

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His modesty and emphasising that science is a communal effort for the benefit of mankind is inspiring. Good on you, George P. Smith. Long may you prosper.

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Jimmy Stewart portrays an honest man who encounters the many-tentacled corruption that engulfs America’s Congress and press. The movie’s portrait of that corruption is still relevant. Today’s Mr. Smith is also seeing the obvious and having the rare courage to speak up about it. ANY scientist, any scholar who pursues facts, who looks at the full set of facts on Israel will see the obvious history of injustices, crimes,… Read more »

Sounds like he did a bit of worthwhile science. But I bet a mere Nobel Prize won’t help if he tries to run that “Perspective on Zionism” tute again. (“So when I see people lined up in rows in front of me, I’m triggered to give a lecture…” I know the feeling. Once in the habit of lecturing, it’s hard to stop. I sometimes give lectures to my cat. She is, of course, a more… Read more »

It doesn’t seem like being pro-Palestinian harmed much his career. It is an often heard claim that anyone who speaks for the Palestinians is somehow doomed. It clearly can be even beneficial, actually.

Or, being on the right side of history eventually pays off.