Israel: Trailblazer in Research Ventures

The “scholarly” boycotters of Israel, so anxious to express their solidarity with the “Palestinian people”, are totally unaware of the harm they are causing the very people they pretend to be helping. These scholars, in formerly respected learned societies such as the American Studies Association and the Association of Asian American Studies, by calling for boycotts of Israeli academic institutions, are preventing the Palestinians from benefitting from the extraordinary advances being made in Israel through research in the fields of medicine and agriculture.

Many of the boycotters in the two organizations seem to be teaching what they see as the important issues of U.S. settler colonialism, queer studies, and critical race and ethnic studies, but with the obsession of true believers on subjects of which they know little, they enthusiastically endorse the call for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The good news about the true state of Israeli intellectual and humanitarian activity has apparently not reached the uninformed boycotters. One might forgive them a little for their appalling ignorance since the positive achievements of Israel are not likely to be given much notice in the mainstream media. Instead of appreciating, or even celebrating, the cutting edge advances being made in the academic halls and laboratories of Israel, research that will help the world, the boycotters wallow in the “evils” of Israel, for them an “apartheid state.” Instead of applying their analytical skills to the actual features of Israeli life, they spout the current, if now really out of date, stylish “progressive” rhetoric condemning the Jewish state. In doing this they are the current reactionaries of the world, preventing progress.

A recent example of the chasm between the mindless, reactionary rhetoric of the boycotters and the true nature of the contributions Israel is making to the health and well-being of the world’s population is the exciting revelations about the causes and treatment of breast cancer being discussed at a conference in April 2014 at the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva.

Alice Walker and a number of other prominent women have vociferously supported the Palestinian call for boycott of Israel and condemnation of Israeli settlements.  It is evident that Ms. Walker and the women who share her point of view appear to be less articulate about and presumably less informed about or aware of, or even interested in the research in Israel focusing on breast cancer.

Fortunately, there are genuine scholars, who are more interested in advancing knowledge than in making a career out of automatic and relentless condemnation of the State of Israel. They have a taste for concrete detail and are both aware of and informed about real problems that seem irrelevant to the boycotters who know so much about the evils of “US settler colonialism” but seem to know little of real scientific research.

A major step in real research and to solving real problems was taken by the New Jersey based Cure Breast Cancer Foundation that hosted the first annual New Frontiers in Cancer Research conference that was held at the Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva in April 2014. The co-chairs of the conference were Dr. Larry Norton, medical director of the Lauder Breast Cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and Dr. David Geffen, head of breast oncology services at Soroka.

The conference, in its pioneering pursuit, is symbolic of the spirit and culture of the State of Israel. Experts from Israel and the United States discussed the advances in cancer research and therapy. The broad theme was the connection between genetic factors and obesity and the growth of cancer. The experts explored pressing issues important for the whole world. Some of those immediate issues are examining the connections between breast cancer and bone health, cancer and heredity, cancer and obesity. A key question considered was whether healthy bones, including the amount of calcium in tissue, have an impact on the development of breast cancer.

Soroka, the conference site, is the teaching hospital for the Medical School of Ben Gurion University, and the major one serving the diverse population -- Bedouins, Christians, and Jews -- living in the Negev desert, and also Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It is one of Israel’s largest medical centers and the single largest employer in the Negev. It is responsible for 200,000 patients, including 38,000 children. It has begun a $40-million development project to build a cancer research and treatment center.

Soroka was chosen as the site of the project by Dr. Norton, aided by his colleague Dr. Ethel Siris, director of the Osteoporosis Center at Columbia University Medical Center. The project is nothing but challenging. It questions the accepted assumption that women who have breast cancer will not get osteoporosis. Norton and Siris suggest that the very medications used to treat breast cancer may harm bones. The basis of the enquiry at Soroka was the understanding of bone metabolism and how bone cells communicate.

The world is largely unaware that the Israeli hospital has been researching molecular genetic tests that are able to determine the tumor of individuals, and then to predict which patients are likely to be helped by chemotherapy. This cutting-edge method is a radical improvement on the traditional pathological approach. It is based on how cancer cells relate to the cells in their environment, such as white blood cells, fat cells, and bone cells. Dr. Norton argues that the communication among cells is extraordinary, and that bone metabolism is clearly involved in communication with white cells in the bone marrow.

What makes this research so exciting and pioneering is that it draws on the unique and significant variation in the people from different ethnic groups, the very antithesis of an “apartheid” society, living in the Negev, thus advancing the ability to do genetic testing and prevention. In addition to the implicit value of the research itself, it will aid the residents of Negev who at present, for various reasons, have a life expectancy seven to eight years less than do residents of Tel Aviv.

Israeli Arabs and Palestinians are not the only individuals to benefit from Israeli academic research. As a result of agreements recently made between Israel and Vietnam there are now plans to establish a joint agriculture center and development fund, as well as a free trade agreement between the two countries. In Vietnam about 70% of the population live in rural areas. Vietnamese researchers will travel to agricultural research centers at public and private institutions such as the Volcani Agricultural Research Organization at Beit Dagan, the agricultural school of Hebrew University, and the Technion-Institute of Technology. In addition, the two countries will cooperate in aquaculture and issues to provide adequate supplies of fish.

Specific Israeli help has taken a number of forms. Since 2012 Israel has been exporting bovine semen to improve the performance of the dairy sector in Vietnam. It has provided Vietnam with the best technologies for crop and dairy farms, modern drip irrigation, and machinery for milking cows.

Afimik (formerly SAE Afikim), a company based in Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley, is a pioneer and global leader in developing advanced computerized systems for the modern dairy farm. In 2010 it initiated a five-year $500 million project, the largest of its kind in the world, to import dairy cows, mostly New Zealand heifers, that are expected to supply Vietnam with 300 million liters of milk, about 40% of Vietnam’s consumption, annually. Another Israeli group coordinated a considerable number of doctors and nurses in public health activities in various central Vietnamese villages.

The academic world and the mainstream media in the U.S. and elsewhere should answer a simple question. Who is doing more for the welfare of the world, including Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, the “progressive” boycotters succumbing to political pressure or anti-Semitic animus, who tend to think with their mouths, or the Israeli medical and agricultural researchers?

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.