“I came here to declare proudly that I stand by Israel. There are lots of academic conferences, some of them important and some less so. This conference at the University is particularly important for me, because it conveys the message that even in this period, we are continuing our scientific work, continuing to think about the future. We won’t let terrorism stop us.” These comments were made by Prof. Eugene Koonin, a member of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and of the US National Academy of Sciences. Prof. Koonin came to Israel to attend a conference held on Thursday at the University. On Saturday, he traveled with Prof. Sagi Snir of the University of Haifa to volunteer at Moshav Mivtachim in the south of Israel, close to the border with the Gaza Strip.
Prof. Koonin is one of the senior evolutionary biologists in the world and was among the scientists who discovered the CRISPR mechanism, which is responsible for genetic editing and is regarded as the “next revolution” in medicine and industry. Prof. Koonin is also someone who is not afraid to express his opinion. For example, he resigned from the Russian Academic of Sciences in protest at the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Prof Koonin’s mother lives in Haifa and he has longstanding and deep bonds with The University and with Israel. For him, it was only natural to come to an academic conference in Israel – and to visit his mother – during wartime. But not everyone feels that way. At passport control in Paris, they were surprised that he was coming to a conference in Israel and were not quick to accept his explanations. “They didn’t believe that there could be an academic conference now in Israel, or that there could even be any academic activity in the country. Maybe things would have gone more smoothly if I’d just said that I was coming to visit my mother.” The conference Prof. Koonin attended was devoted to the connections between evolution, the development of language, and machine learning. Other participants included Turing Prize (the “Nobel Prize” of the computer sciences) recipient Prof. Shafi Goldwasser of UC Berkeley.
Prof. Koonin suggests that the vociferous positions against Israel in US academia do not reflect the true positions of many faculty members who support Israel. “I find the demonstrations on campuses against Israel unacceptable, but at least as far as I know, they 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. It may be that smarter people also tend to be less vociferous. 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 comments.
Prof. Koonin is not afraid to discuss the Congress hearing attended by the presidents of Harvard, Pennsylvania University, and MIT. He understands the given the constitutional status of freedom of expression in the US, the presidents were trying not to cross red lines, although in his personal opinion the demonstrations and incitement against Jews and Israel on campuses have indeed crossed that line. “What bothers me more is that the presidents were not clear enough in expressing the position of their institutions in favor of Israel and against terrorism. 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 own position and their condemnation of terrorism enough.”
Prof. Koonin does not believe that the inadequate response of the US college presidents is due to their fear of the students or left-wing organizations. Rather, he sees it as part of an approach that has become prevalent in the US that tries to “get along” with everyone and above all – not to offend anyone. “In these circumstances, and purely in my own personal opinion, this is unacceptable,” he emphasizes.
As noted, at the weekend Prof. Koonin went with his host from the University of Haifa, Prof. Sagi Snir from the Department of Evolutionary and Environmental Biology, who organized the conference, to volunteer in the “Gaza Envelope” area. I realize this is a symbolic act, but symbols have their importance. It’s important to me to identify with the residents of Israel, with those who were killed and injured in the Gaza Envelope area, and sadly there are so many of them…”