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ISRAEL: Nobel laureate Ada Yonath irks right wing, feminists

October 14, 2009 |  7:24 am

The Nobel Prizes take people from the forefront of their particular fields into the public eye. The intentions are good, a recognition of outstanding merit and achievement, of contribution to humanity. And it is humanity's nature to be curious about larger-than-life figures and their positions on current affairs, where it is easier to understand -- and challenge them -- than on their expert turf.

Professor Ada E. Yonath, an Israeli professor of structural biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for deciphering the structure of the ribosomes, the cell's protein factories. Like most Israelis (and Palestinians), she has opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, again like most, isn't shy about them.

In one of the post-award interviews, Yonath touched on the prickly subject of Palestinian prisoners. Speaking only a few days after the nation was absorbed in the video of Gilad Shalit and immersed in the harrowing debate over Hamas' demands for his release, the fresh laureate called for the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israel -- regardless of Shalit, whose captivity pains her. Holding prisoners only increases the other side's motivation; the extent of terror would diminish if the perpetrators had less motivation to do it, Yonath said. She could be dreaming, she said, but better this dream than holding people.

For some, this was enough to turn her from a source of uniting national pride to a source of controversy.

Ophir Akunis, a legislator from the ruling party Likud, was happy for Yonath's award, which honored her and the state. "Clearly, she excels in chemistry," he told Israel Radio, "but she certainly does not excel in a sober view of the conflict in the Middle East. Everyone is entitled to express their opinion, but my problem is with people who won the Nobel Prize in one field or another becoming a political oracle. She did not win the Nobel for diplomatic achievement. And now she will become a pillar of fire for the rapidly fading notion that Israel alone is responsible for the conflict."

Uri Avnery is a longtime friend of Yonath. The professor attends Avnery's "parliament," a group of friends that started meeting in a legendary Tel Aviv cafe half a century ago to talk news and views. They were very proud of the award, which he said they'd been awaiting for years. Avnery, as left-wing as Jews in Israel come, was also proud of the view that irked many on the right or opposed to releasing Palestinian prisoners. "We try to live in a world of thought, not slogans. Ada would not have received the Nobel Prize if she had said only what was acceptable. She reached the summit of science, unique and indescribable peaks -- and she wouldn't have achieved this if she didn't have a healthy brain that cuts through matters and if she lived in a world of slogans like politicians."

Other Israeli laureates have been vocal on current affairs -- and from the other direction. Professor Israel (Robert) Aumann won the Nobel Memorial Prize for economics in 2005. This was only a few months after Israel carried out then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and Aumann was harsh and bitter in his criticism of the government's policy, the treatment of the settlers evacuated from their homes, and what he denounced as public defeatism. Like any Israeli laureate, Aumann made all Israelis proud by winning the Nobel, not only those who understood his work. His political views made him popular in certain circles, less so in others.

One needn't be a Nobel winner to know the chemistry between the sides of the conflict is bad. But Aumann's academic niche, game theory, can in fact be applied to the conflict. The Nobel committee had stated that Aumann and American co-laureate Thoman Schelling had enhanced understanding of conflict and cooperation through game theory analysis. Aumann was among the speakers at the prestigious annual Herzliya Conference in 2006; examining the conflict through game theory, he concluded that the "crazy galloping towards the peace that is yearned for actually distances us. Our interest rates are too high. … He who wants peace now will not receive peace ever. He who has patience … will be the one giving peace a chance."

Professor Esther Hertzog, an anthropologist and coordinator of the Women's Parliament, was upset by Yonath for different reasons. Yonath, only the fourth woman to have won a Nobel Prize in chemistry since 1901, had brushed aside the gender issue, as had male colleagues like professor Aaron Ciechanover, who won the chemistry award in 2004. "I don't walk into the lab in the morning thinking, 'I am a woman and I will carry out an experiment that will conquer the world.' I am a scientist, not male or female. A scientist," she said. Hertzog regretted Yonath's approach and that often women who do succeed attribute this to their skill and perseverance alone and overlook the contribution of decades of feminist struggle for women's right to education and equality. This is what allowed women to succeed in the 21st century, she wrote, albeit with a price.

Yonath won the L'Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award in 2008. So did professor Elizabeth Blackburn, who received this year's Nobel Prize in medicine.

-- Batsheva Sobelman

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