To go or not to go
In 2008, I was invited to spend a summer conducting neuroscience research at both the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) and Al Quds Palestinian University (East Jerusalem /West Bank).
As an Egyptian, I had grown up very cautious about interacting with Israelis; it had never occurred to me to visit Israel. Many other Egyptians and probably many people in other Arab states feel the same way.
Some of my friends in Egypt advised me not to embark on such an “unethical” trip. For many in Egypt, setting foot in Israel is unthinkable, regardless of the purpose of the visit. But the Palestinian professors whom I consulted did not voice such criticism; they encouraged me to visit Israel. My friends in the United States did not make such criticisms either, and I realized that many Americans and Europeans who visit Israel hold different views on Israeli politics, yet they discuss their opinions openly with Israelis.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that regardless of the views my friends and I might have about Israeli politics, the opportunity to gain scientific experience at a good research institution was a separate issue, and nearly at the deadline for making the decision, I decided to accept the invitation to visit Israel.
Time in Israel
As I landed in Israel and went through Israeli customs and security, I had a few a worrisome moments. But my three months in Israel were scientifically enriching and socially rewarding. I spent most of my time at the Hebrew and Al Quds Universities, but I also occasionally visited Haifa University. Both the city and the university in Haifa have large Jewish and Arab populations, and the two groups mix more often than in Jerusalem.
In the very beginning, the Hebrew University kindly helped me obtain a visa for my visit. At the Hebrew University, I learned some scientific techniques on animal models of Parkinson’s disease with the generous help of Dr. Boris Rosin. Professors at the Hebrew University were very enthusiastic to have me as a colleague. I still consult with them on many open questions and research projects in the Parkinson’s disease field, in which the neuroscientists at the Hebrew University play a key international role.
My social life in Israel and the West Bank was also rewarding and educational. I visited many parts of Israel with my Arab neighbors in Jerusalem, many of whom were students at the Hebrew University. I was also repeatedly invited to professors’ homes for shabbat dinner and social gatherings, and I was always warmly welcomed. At many of these occasions, I felt more welcomed than people visiting from European countries, perhaps because of my Egyptian background. Among Israeli and Palestinian students, I often found myself discussing political issues, including the role of Anwar Sadat ın the peace process, the Palestinian refugee problem, Jews from Arab lands, and others. I found that Israelis’ stands on political issues were not at all homogenous.
Israeli universities produce scientific research comparable to that seen in Western countries. Israeli science institutions are constantly expanding. For example, the Hebrew University is currently building a new multi-million-dollar brain science research center, and plan to recruit top-notch scientists from around the globe. World-class scientists from Italy, the United States, Germany, Canada, Japan, and many other countries are constantly visiting and lecturing at Israeli universities. Israel holds many annual science meetings that researchers from various countries attend. Students from many European countries conduct their graduate work in Israel. Many Israeli universities have shown advancement in fields ranging from biomedical research to agriculture to engineering.
It is sad that neighboring countries do not participate in these activities. There is no doubt that Israeli science institutions and Israeli researchers would welcome having Arab researchers visit and collaborate with them. It is an overall a win-win game for both sides, if not more beneficial for Arab researchers. Arab countries need more scientific interaction with the outside world, including Israel.
After gaining science and research experience at world-class Israeli universities, Arab researchers could definitely be great assets to their home countries.
It is also beneficial to invite Israeli scientists and researchers to attend conferences and to lecture in Arab countries. Israeli scientists are frequently invited to lecture at large universitıes ın Europe and the United States; and even, in recognition of their scientific achievements, to give keynote lectures at annual conferences. Israeli scientists do, however, face difficulties attending conferences in Arab states. Should not we benefit from these minds as well? The Israeli experiment in science advancement is a good example for neighboring nations to follow, given the geographical and environmental similarities.
While in Israel, I repeatedly visited the West Bank and many Arab towns in northern Israel, and they were all equally welcoming and happy with my visit. Many students and professors at Al Quds University also welcomed me as a colleague, and with them, I visited Bethlehem, Ramallah, and other Palestinian towns. Almost every Palestinian I met instantly recognized my Egyptian background once I said a word in Arabic. This is because many Palestinians, and other Arabs, have grown up watching Egyptian movies, and are very familiar with the Egyptian Arabic dialect. These were pleasing moments.
Al Quds University in the West Bank has many collaborative scientific projects with Hebrew University, although in recent years, collaboration has not been as strong. I visited a few laboratories at Al Quds University. For example, Dr. Mukhles Sowwan, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, obtained his doctorate from the Hebrew University, under the supervision of an Israeli professor, and returned to the West Bank to start a top-notch nanotechnology laboratory at Al Quds University. Dr. Sowwan’s lab is enviable by many standards, and one cannot help but hope that other scientists in the Arab world follow Dr. Sowwan’s example. Why should not Arabs learn at Israeli universities? Like Dr. Sowwan, why should not Arabs get mentored by Israeli professors and go on to become independent investigators making their own contributions to the global scientific enterprise?
For many in the Arab world, the word Israel elicits political thoughts only. However, it is important to appreciate Israel’s advanced science infrastructure and to recognize that, whatever one’s political views, scientific collaboration with Israel is not only possible but also potentially beneficial for Egypt and other Arab countries.
Ahmed Moustafa, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University, Newark, NJ