Interview. An interview with the physicist as students and professors call for an end to dual-use research with Israel. ‘Accusations of anti-Semitism are a cudgel wielded by the Israeli government at every turn against anyone who criticizes it.’

Carlo Rovelli: ‘We can be open without collaborating in every massacre’

Physicist Carlo Rovelli has taken a stand for the students and researchers who have called on universities and the Italian National Council for Research to suspend collaborations with Israel in dual-use research with both civilian and military applications.

The debate over the social value of scientific research is as old as research itself. Science and power have often helped each other, at least since Archimedes built weapons to defend Syracuse from the Romans, and the debate hasn’t died down ever since, as the controversy around the decisions by the Universities of Turin and Pisa to refuse to collaborate with the Israeli government shows. Dr. Rovelli spoke with il manifesto from New Mexico, where he is currently located.

Professor, is it possible to have science that is separate from power and which doesn’t impose any ethical dilemmas on scientists?

I certainly hope not. I think any activity leads to ethical and political questions. Science is no different from all the others.

But Minister Bernini described scientific research as a dialogue between different participants, even between democracies and dictatorships, which does not abide by international sanctions. She should know: is it really a world that is so separate from current events that it cannot take a stand?

Is the Minister in favor of sharing Italian military research with Iran? The scientific world I am part of recognizes no borders: some of my collaborators and friends are Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Israeli. But this doesn’t preempt political and ethical choices. There are also Israelis among those who are in favor of a boycott. Being open to the world doesn’t imply that we have to collaborate in every massacre.

Is there also a debate among academics outside Italy about whether to collaborate with the Israeli government in today’s situation, or is it something peculiar to Italy?

The same debate is taking place in many countries. I think that every friend of Israel, and everyone who, like me, has deep love for the Jewish world, must do everything they can to stop the ongoing massacre which, sadly, is turning the whole world against Israel with indignation and anger.

Does the debate outside Italy also come with accusations of anti-Semitism?

Let me say one thing that I think is important, and I wish it were more widely recognized. Accusations of anti-Semitism are a cudgel wielded by the Israeli government at every turn against anyone who criticizes it. This is profoundly counterproductive for the Jewish world, because it turns a political and ethical issue into a question supposedly tied to race and religion. Reading the world and its inevitable conflicts, its inevitable serious differences of ideas, as conflicts between races and religions – this is exactly what racism is. This is exactly what anti-Semitism feeds on. Cataloging people by race instead of by what they do. The tactic of accusing those who criticize Israel’s government of anti-Semitism fuels racism, because it turns a political issue into a racial issue. A very important part of the Jewish world is among the billions of people today who are calling on the Israeli government to stop.

Collaborations between scientists and the military are causing controversy because of the international geopolitical fallout. But the collaboration between universities and research institutions and the Italian military industry is rarely questioned. Is there a contradiction there?

There is a lively outcry by many students against the unfortunately increasing levels of collaboration between universities, research institutions and the Italian military industry. But these are two different issues. The major role of the military industry in stoking the current frenzied arms race around the world is a serious issue: to increase its profits, the military industry is pushing us toward the abyss of a global conflict. But the ongoing massacre in Gaza is a matter of immediate urgency, demanding fast commitment to action.

An Israeli journalistic investigation republished by il manifesto uncovered the Israeli military’s use of artificial intelligence in the conflict. Are you surprised by that?

No, it would be odd if they didn’t use it. Artificial intelligence is being used even in washing machines.

But does this revelation open up a new ethical issue in the debate over the significance of “dual use” research?

In my view, the pressing issue is not quibbling over subtle ethical inquiries. Both Israelis and 30,000 Palestinians have been slaughtered, and the slaughter of Palestinians is continuing. Every little bit of political pressure is helpful. At the United Nations, Belgium, which is not exactly an extremist country, voted for a motion accusing the Israeli government of possible crimes against humanity. Quibbling over the details of “dual use” means drawing the discussion away from the serious emergency.

il manifesto has launched a large demonstration for April 25 in Milan, not only a commemoration but also a mobilization against the sovereignist and extremist right wing that is gaining ground in Europe. Is there a link between the struggle against right-wingers and the mobilization for peace?

I wish there was. Unfortunately, there isn’t. The majority of the left in Western countries, including ours, is more bellicose than the right. I think this bellicosity is more dangerous for the planet than issues of political affiliation.

But in the U.S., the Democratic Party base is asking Biden for a different direction in the Middle East in exchange for their vote, and the Italian (or European) right wing is casting Western international alignment as a pillar of its legitimacy. Does the outcome of the European or U.S. elections really not matter?

The same lively debate is taking place between those who foment war and those who call for peace, within the right and within the left. Let’s not tell the canard that today the right is belligerent and the left is pacifist. That’s not true. Instead, let’s strive for it to become true. Let’s push the left to become the standard bearer for the value of peace: which does not mean exterminating the enemies and winning all wars first.

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