Boycotting Israeli science harms everybody

Congress must step in and codify a 2020 policy change on essential U.S. collaboration with Israeli research and development.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at Ariel University on March 9, 2022. Photo by Josh Hasten.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at Ariel University on March 9, 2022. Photo by Josh Hasten.
Heather Johnston
Heather Johnston is the founder and chief executive officer of the U.S. Israel Education Association.

As Israelis further test the enduring stamina of their democratic principles this week on the issue of judicial reform, the U.S.-Israel relationship must stay the course by continuing to strengthen shared values and commitments to security and peace.

In a July 9 interview with CNN host Fareed Zakaria, President Joe Biden criticized Israeli judicial reform, blamed tensions in Jenin and other Palestinian Authority-controlled territories on the P.A.’s “lost credibility” and “extreme” ministers in Israel’s government, and dodged the question of inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House.

These statements came just a few weeks after the Biden administration reimposed a ban prohibiting U.S. taxpayer funds from being used on any research and development or scientific cooperation projects conducted in Israeli-controlled areas in Judea and Samaria (aka, the “West Bank”).

Since its inception, Israel has worked closely with America on scientific breakthroughs in fields including clean energy, cancer care and irrigation. Funding for that research is now under threat.

The ban reverses an Oct. 2020 decision by the Trump administration to remove such geographic restrictions via an agreement signed by Netanyahu and then-U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman at a ceremony held at Ariel University.

While ostensibly implemented for humanitarian reasons, Biden’s policy reversal will harm U.S. citizens by curtailing their access to lifesaving medical and technological breakthroughs. Collaborations between the U.S. and Israel have long yielded cutting-edge medicines and medical equipment, lessening both countries’ overdependence on China.

Our two nations have formally facilitated these scientific relationships for 50 years. Three bilateral U.S.-Israel science and technology foundations—the Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), Binational Science Foundation (BSF) and Binational Agricultural Research and Development Foundation (BARD)—were founded in the 1970s to strengthen U.S.-Israel ties by cultivating Israel’s then-nascent scientific community. The foundations were initially endowed with $200 million, with one half of the funds provided by each respective government.

The charters of all three foundations stipulate that “projects sponsored by the Foundation may not be conducted in geographic areas which came under the administration of the Government of Israel after June 5, 1967, and may not relate to subjects primarily pertinent to such areas.” At the time, this referred to Judea and Samaria, Gaza, the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem. 

At the time, very few Israelis lived in those areas. Today, the realities on the ground have changed. Nearly 500,000 Israelis live in these territories. Higher education institutions located in these territories, such as Ariel University,­ have been on the cutting edge of medical research that has benefitted both the U.S. and Israel.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is collaborating with Ariel University on a novel mechanism for drug resistance in cancer cells. With today’s cancer drug shortages, the timing of this research could not be more critical.

Ariel University also partners with the University of Rochester to develop a novel therapeutic modality for the improvement of affective and cognitive functions by using extracellular vesicles derived from mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs).

Biomirex, Inc. is working with Ariel University on a targeted-delivery system for treatment of pancreatic and triple-negative breast cancers.

Future cancer patients aren’t the only potential victims of funding boycotts. In the near term, funding cuts will have the greatest effect on Israeli researchers returning home to continue their work after post-doctoral fellowships in the U.S.

The U.S. government should fund collaborative research between American scientists and their partners from allied nations regardless of where the research takes place.

The White House indicated that engaging in bilateral scientific and technological cooperation with Israel in the disputed territories is “incompatible with the foreign policy of the United States.” But are the lifesaving drugs developed by American scientists and Ariel University hazardous to our foreign policy?

Since eligibility for binational funds were extended in 2020, Ariel University has undergone an exponential increase in collaboration with American universities. In 2021, 18 proposals were sent to binational funds, seven of which were granted funding. In 2022, 32 proposals were sent and responses are expected in July 2023. So far this year, more than 60 proposals are being prepared. 

If the Biden administration follows through on its funding ban, all of this research is likely to cease—unless Congress acts quickly.

Congress must codify the Oct. 2020 policy and pass a law mandating that U.S. funding for BIRD, BSF and BARD cannot discriminate against scientists based on where they conduct their research.

Theoretical political lines should not block access to critical science. America, Israel and the world simply have too much to lose.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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