Last year I asked if scientists were more valuable to the anti-Israel BDS movement than Middle East studies and English professors. Judging by the emergence of one prominent scientist to a leadership position in the movement, the answer is no.
George P. Smith, Ph.D., is a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and a lead organizer of the Mid-Missourians for Justice in Palestine. He might be one of the most nimble and insightful minds in the fields of biological and chemical sciences, but when it comes to his anti-Zionism, he is a follower, regurgitating the latest ahistorical narratives and indictments of the Jewish state like an undergraduate activist who's very confident but knows precious little.
Last month, Smith took to Zoom to give the inaugural talk in the Bisan Lecture Series. The event was co-sponsored by Columbia University's Center for Palestine Studies, an activist group called Scientists for Palestine (S4P), and the Bisan Center for Research and Development, an NGO designated on September 22, 2021, as a terrorist organization by Israel for its ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
In his lecture, titled "The Virology of Ideas — An Indispensable Pandemic," the Nobel laureate attempted to forge a credible analogy comparing the COVID-19 pandemic to (variously, in fits and starts) Israel, capitalism, and education. The brief moments of coherence were overshadowed by confusing and inapt comparisons, along with some moments of thick irony.
Decked out in his Palestinian keffiyeh, the grizzled professor from University of Missouri (full disclosure, I have an M.A. from Mizzou), read his paper slowly in a tedious monotone, then came to life as he entertained questions chosen by moderator Haynes Miller, a professor of mathematics at MIT.
For the first half hour, Smith lectured on the origin and spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, trying to draw a parallel to an "analogous cultural question" about the origin and spread of ideas. But the comparison was never developed enough to make sense. He criticized capitalism for allowing the "patent monopolies" that enabled a few private companies to reap financial rewards from work done "over 30 years" by thousands of scientists.
Smith compared every person who has contracted Omicron with what he called the "ideosphere," explaining that all previous COVID variants led to Omicron in the same way that the free flow of ideas among scientists lead to advances in science — including the mRNA vaccines. But it was never clear if transmission was a good or bad thing in this hackneyed metaphor-gone-wrong. Transmission of ideas is good, apparently, but only if the ideas are good in Smith's estimation.
Summing up his murky thesis, Smith explained that "the Omicron variant is a rare unpredictable by-product of worldwide community infection; likewise, great cultural achievements are rare, unpredictable by-products of the vibrant, all-encompassing culture of a free people." I can't have been the only witness to this event who was confused by this indecipherable comparison.
Smith spewed the usual dim clichés: "Zionism's apartheid regime," "ethnic supremacism," "cultural deprivation."
Just when it seemed that Smith had forgotten that his lecture was directed at the Palestinian lobby, he shifted suddenly and inexplicably to the "nakba" — an Arabic word meaning "catastrophe" used to describe the Arab loss to Israel in 1948–49. This strange non sequitur, coming 30 minutes into a talk about viruses and ideas, had Smith suddenly emoting like the BDS-er that he is about how "Zionism has inflicted upon the Palestinian people" a program of cultural "erasure" and "dispossession" without much explanation of how any of this fit into his flailing metaphor.
All the usual dim clichés followed: "Zionism's apartheid regime," "ethnic supremacism," and "cultural deprivation."
At one point, Smith's metaphor-run-amok had him comparing education with infection. His odd reference to how kindergarten teachers "infect children's brains with ideas" was particularly ironic given that the Palestinian educational system is a brainwashing project designed to make children hate. Anyone with an internet connection can find angelic-faced Palestinian children, some very young, singing about sacrificing their lives, which they learn in classrooms and mimicking their teachers' lessons about a Palestine "from the river to the sea."
Smith claimed "the West Bank is a police state," yet 95 percent of people there are governed by the Palestinian Authority.
Smith exclaimed that "the West Bank is a police state" and "Gaza is worse than a police state" — which is ironic because he meant to indict Israel as the bad cop and apparently doesn't know that 95 percent of Palestinians living in "the West Bank" are governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and 100 percent of Palestinians living in Gaza are governed by Hamas. Sure, they're police states, but take that up with Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh.
When one questioner asked if there might be such a thing as "ideological vaccinations against contagious ideas," Smith was stumped, admitting "that is a metaphor I didn't think of." As he laughed nervously, Miller chimed in with "It's called hegemony" (as if that made any sense), but it was clear that Smith had a sudden epiphany as he blurted out (see the 55:05 mark on the YouTube version), "Could we consider the separation wall as vaccination against unwanted ideas, unwanted in the view of the police state?" Exactly right, Professor Smith. Since the wall that Israel built at the height of the second intifada largely put an end to the second intifada by blocking the Palestinian suicide bombers' access to civilian-rich Israeli targets, it fulfills the metaphorical role of vaccination nicely, but it also compares Palestinian suicide bombers to a virus, which probably wasn't his intention.
Inadvertently, Smith invited comparison of Palestinian culture to a virus and Israeli counterterrorism measures to medicine.
In fact, every effort Smith made to salvage his analogy gone wrong came back with shades of irony, inviting comparison of Palestinian culture to a virus and Israeli counterterrorism measures to medicine.
Another question led Smith to an extended rant on "how difficult the Zionist occupation has made it for universities ... to do ordinary university things," especially when "the Zionist police state decides" who can be a visiting scholar and which resources can be shared with Palestinian researchers. Of course, his shallow complaint about the restriction of what he called in turns "materials," "supplies," and "samples" ignored the fact that Palestinian universities are not "ordinary universities" but are in fact mostly run by terrorists and jihadis. Every university in Gaza is run by Hamas, and at Birzeit University near Ramallah, Hamas, Fatah, and the PFLP share control through the student groups that dominate campus life. Smith would have us pretend that dual-use research would never go on in such places and overlook the fact that Palestinians have a colorful history of weaponizing even seemingly innocent things like kites and balloons. It's not exactly going out on a limb to suggest that anything explosive, poisonous, or contagious should be kept far away from Palestinian universities. Call it keeping bad ideas out of the ideosphere or preventing more virus from pouring into an already infected community.
When a question prompted Smith to comment on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, asking how to "take advantage of this situation in order to change the way people think and react about the crimes of Israeli occupation in Palestine," he didn't hesitate to explain that he sees "a very close parallel" to the Israel–Palestine conflict. "The analogy is almost laughably parallel," he improvised, because "Russia claims that Ukraine is really a part of Russia." Once again, Smith's powers of comparison failed him. Putin's claim that Ukraine is part of Russia is a much closer parallel to the PLO's and Hamas's vision of a "Palestine from the River to the Sea." Unlike Russia, Israel exercises great restraint against an enemy it could have crushed decades ago were it to adopt the Putin strategy. In fact, Russia's strategy of targeting Ukrainian civilians mirrors the Palestinian tactics.
Perhaps the most telling question was this one: "How can we use science to influence the other components of the international community to affect [sic] change in Palestine towards liberation?" It brought Smith to life, as he proclaimed himself (at the 59:10 mark) "a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions call, the BDS call, including the academic and cultural boycott of Israel." He quickly added that his boycott "is not a boycott of individual Israelis of course," but that claim is belied by his efforts in 2020 to pressure the journal Molecules into boycotting Professor Mindy Levine unless she agreed to list her academic affiliation as "Ariel University, illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel, Occupied Palestinian Territory."
Demonstrating a want of introspection, Smith failed to detect any parallel between his complaint about Israeli officials determining which foreign scholars are allowed to teach in Palestinian universities like Birzeit and his own efforts to determine which Israeli scholars (none?) are allowed to publish in influential journals.
George Smith's obtuse analogies and perpendicular parallels may lead some to question if he is a genius or a dunce.
Overall, the inaugural lecture of the Bisan Lecture Series was a dismal performance. For all George Smith's attempts to be clever with allusions to spike proteins and Israeli policies, ideas and viruses, occupation and illness, none of his analogies worked. The man whom the wildly anti-Semitic, hate site Mondoweiss blog calls "a humble scientist" and "longtime supporter of Palestinian rights, including support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)" may be a scientific genius, but as a purveyor of metaphors, he is not humble enough. His obtuse analogies and perpendicular parallels won't convince anyone to join in the boycott movement, and they might lead some to question if he is a genius or a dunce.
The leaders of the BDS movement believe that enlisting scientists into their cause will confer upon it a unique credibility. They are mistaken. The movement itself is failing, and the scientific community is increasingly viewed with skepticism over the coronavirus pandemic. When the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) recently voted to authorize the BDS movement, it backfired as many universities cut ties with MESA. Scientists rushing to delegitimize Israel will do themselves and their movement little good, especially when they perform as poorly as George Smith did in his Bisan debut.