The Science Museum, one of Britain's most prestigious public institutions, was embroiled in a row last night after being accused of promoting Israeli universities whose research was used in the country's military campaign in Gaza.
More than 400 academics, a Nobel laureate and the former chair of the Science Select Committee called on the museum to cancel workshops due to be held this week that promote Israeli scientific achievements to schoolchildren.
The critics plan to picket the event and accused the museum of promoting scientists and universities who are "complicit in the Israeli occupation and in the policies and weaponry recently deployed to such disastrous effect in Gaza".
Many of the critics were behind a campaign in 2002 to impose an academic boycott on Israel. That campaign failed but it provoked debate worldwide over whether Israeli academics should be penalised for the actions of their government.
Forty professors are among the signatories who want the workshops cancelled. They include Jonathan Rosenhead from the London School of Economics, who is leading the protest, Steven Rose from the Open University and the historian Charles Jenck. The Zionist Federation is running the "educational seminars" at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry today and at the Science Museum on Thursday.
The federation's chair, Andrew Balcombe, said they were purely educational and non-political. "We are proud to be running an event like this. It's merely to inform people of the contribution that Israel has made to science and technology ... I'm not aware of any connection between defence and university research, and none that is stronger than in any other countries." Dr Ian Gibson MP, the former chairman of the House of Commons Science Select Committee, the Booker-shortlisted writer Ahdaf Soueif, the architect Walter Hain, and the Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire also signed a petition against the workshops. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine organised the petition.
The "Israel Day of Science" seminars showcase the work of seven universities for 1,200 largely non-Jewish secondary school pupils. The museums said they were not co-hosting or sponsoring the events but had rented their corporate space to the federation. Professor Rosenhead said it did not exonerate them from blame. "If Robert Mugabe wanted to hire out these museums' spaces for a corporate event, we know what they would say." He said there was a host of evidence to suggest a sinister link between Israel's scientists and defence policies. Tel Aviv University's most recent annual review, he said, stated that "the Israeli Ministry of Defence is currently funding 55 projects at TAU", which "is playing a major role in enhancing Israel's military edge".
Ms Soueif, meanwhile, believed the Science Museum's reputation would suffer as a result. The Museum attracts an average of 2.5 million visitors every year, with 36 per cent aged 16 or under. "[The museum] gives its seal of approval to events that are held on its premises. [So] should it, specifically allow its name and reputation to be used to give kudos to Israeli institutions directly involved with Israeli military like, for example, Tel Aviv University? It can no longer be seen as an institution of integrity."
The Science Museum said the event had been planned for nearly a year and "has no political theme." A statement added: "Scientists speaking at the event include a marine biologist, a physicist who works on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, a nanotechnology expert ... Having considered the issue very carefully, and while fully respecting the right for everyone to express their views, [we] believe that not to proceed with the event would mean taking a political stand, which would be wholly inappropriate."