by Julie Henry, Education Correspondent | Daily Telegraph | 29 June 2003
An Oxford University professor has provoked outrage by rejecting an application from an Israeli PhD student purely because of his nationality.
Andrew Wilkie, the Nuffield professor of pathology and a fellow of Pembroke College, is under investigation after telling Amit Duvshani, a student at Tel Aviv university, that he and many other British academics were not prepared to take on Israelis because of the "gross human rights abuses" he claims that they inflict on Palestinians.
Prof Wilkie made the comments after Mr Duvshani, 26, wrote to him requesting the opportunity to work in Prof Wilkie's laboratory towards a PhD thesis. Mr Duvshani, who is in the last months of a master's degree in molecular biology, included a CV detailing his academic and outside experience, including his mandatory three-year national service in the Israeli army.
In a reply sent by email on June 23, Prof Wilkie wrote: "Thank you for contacting me, but I don't think this would work. I have a huge problem with the way that the Israelis take the moral high ground from their appalling treatment in the Holocaust, and then inflict gross human rights abuses on the Palestinians because they [the Palestinians] wish to live in their own country.
"I am sure that you are perfectly nice at a personal level, but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army. As you may be aware, I am not the only UK scientist with these views but I'm sure you will find another lab if you look around."
Mr Duvshani told The Telegraph that he was shocked by the email. Speaking from his home in Tel Aviv, he said: "I was appalled that such a distinguished man could think something like that. I did not expect it from a British professor. I sent similar applications all round Europe and did not have another response like that. Science and politics should be separate. This is discrimination."
Mr Duvshani said he would not be put off coming to Britain, because "I think there are better people than him there". He said, however, that he was unlikely to accept any position offered by Oxford University.
Mr Duvshani had no further contact from Prof Wilkie or from the university after receiving the email. When this newspaper contacted the university on Friday, however, a spokesman said that she was aware of the email following a complaint from academics who had seen it.
That evening, the university issued a statement from Prof Wilkie apologising to Mr Duvshani and making clear that he was not speaking on behalf of Oxford. The spokesman said that the university was investigating Prof Wilkie and added: "Freedom of expression is a fundamental tenet of university life but under no circumstances are we prepared to accept or condone conduct that appears to, or does, discriminate against anyone on grounds of ethnicity or nationality, either directly or indirectly."
A report into the matter will be presented to Sir Colin Lucas, the Vice-Chancellor, later this week and Prof Wilkie could face disciplinary action or even dismissal.
Speaking from his home in Oxfordshire last night, Prof Wilkie apologised "unreservedly" for his actions. "I made a mistake," he said. "The email was inappropriate. I expressed personally-held opinions that have nothing to do with Oxford University and they should not have been expressed in that manner. I have learned a lesson.
"I have a view on the situation in the Middle East but I am not a racist or anti-Semitic. I just want to draw a line under the whole thing."
The professor, who was elected Nuffield professor of pathology last month, said that he could understand the distress and anger felt by Mr Duvshani. When asked if he would look again at the student's application for a PhD, he replied "absolutely" and added that he "entirely accepted" the university's equal opportunities and race equality policies.
A series of attempts have been made to isolate Israeli scholars in protest at their country's operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In Britain, calls for an academic boycott have been led by Steven Rose, an Open University professor.
Last year the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology was forced to hold an inquiry after The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Mona Baker, a professor, had sacked two Israeli academics from the editorial boards of two journals because of their nationality.
A Umist inquiry found that Prof Baker had not acted improperly under its rules because the journals she owns were not connected to the university.
Giles Henderson, the master of Pembroke College, said of Prof Wilkie's case: "The college will await the outcome of the university's investigation."
Additional reporting by Charlotte Edwardes