Rita Levi Montalcini’s legacy and the boycott movement’s stupidity

“Above all, don’t fear difficult moments. The best comes from them.” (Rita Levi Montalcini)

In 1938, Benito Mussolini instituted racial laws in Italy which decreed that people with Jewish heritage, like Rita Levi Montalcini, could no longer work at universities or in most professions, including medicine. There was then also a manifesto against Jewish professionals which was undersigned by Italian scientists. At first frustrated, Rita Levi Montalcini proceeded to set up a lab in her bedroom, where she used surgical instruments made out of sharpened sewing needles. She worked secretly, throughout World War II, even when bombing forced Levi Montalcini and her family to leave Turin for the countryside.

When the war ended, she served as a doctor in a refugee camp before returning to the University of Turin. But her life changed course when the American embryologist Viktor Hamburger, who inspired her works, having seen papers that Levi Montalcini had published, invited her to visit Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The rest belongs to history. This work contributed to her later discovery of nerve growth factor, for which she shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with her colleague Stanley Cohen.

She left us in 2012, it’s almost two years in December, but her legacy still survives. She pursued the ideals of academic and research freedom and the open search of ideas central to the role of scholarship, researchers and academic institutions. Research is an unstoppable creative work carried out on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications for the benefit of the entire world. The primary purposes of research are the discovery, interpretation, or the research and development(R&D) of methods and systems for the advancement of human knowledge.

Nevertheless, there are still researchers/academics that seem to have learnt nothing from her, to have understood nothing from her exemplum. I’m talking about the ASA-American Studies Association that is the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history. The members of the American Studies Association have endorsed the Association’s participation in a boycott of Israeli academic and research institutions.

In an election that attracted 1252 voters, the largest number of participants in the organization’s history, 66.05% of voters endorsed the resolution, while 30.5% of voters voted no and 3.43% abstained. The organization had openly called for a boycott of Israeli academic and research institutions as they declare on their website. The recent resolution of the ASA proposing to boycott Israeli universities represents a direct threat to the ideals of freedom of research, as Rita Levi Montalcini has taught us, ideals which universities and researchers should strongly defend. After the boycott resolution was announced, the Executive Committee of the Association of American Universities, an association of 62 leading research universities including Harvard, condemned the move as a direct violation of academic freedom.

The boycott, however, is not only an attack upon academic freedom. It is part of a global campaign to undermine the moral and political foundations of the State of Israel. Even more, the ASA boycott resolution calls for students, researchers and scholars to “engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine in support of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement”.

BDS activities do not merely seek to change the actions of Israel’s government. They seek to eliminate the state and its vital democracy, and at this point we can affirm its vivid and vital academic world. By condoning and participating in the BDS movement, the ASA academic boycott threatens not only the future of the State of Israel, and its hopes for peace in the region, but the entire future of science and culture development in the world to which the State of Israel strongly contributes. ASA bigotry is unsustainable and disgusting within the academic and research environment. It undermines the pure essence of being a scholar or a researcher, that is to be free, with no mental boundaries, for the benefits of the entire humankind!

For this reason the Faculty for Academic Freedom is collecting signatures of academics and researchers in an online petition to vigorously support free speech and free debate but strongly oppose faculty or student boycotts of Israel’s academic institutions, scholars and students.

My signature is there already…

About the Author
Francesca D'Esposito is an Italian project manager working for National Research Council ( and she is in love with Israel and its people.
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