Physics Prize Falls Foul of Middle East Politics

PARIS--A bitter dispute has broken out among some of France's leading physicists over a decision by the French Physical Society (SFP) to block the award of a prize named after a Lebanese scientist to an eminent Israeli researcher. The emotional battle has detonated an explosion of charges and countercharges among the close-knit community of France's physics elite.

On 12 October last year, a panel made up of physicists from France and other countries voted to award the 1998 Rammal medal--named for a gifted Lebanese physicist, Rammal Rammal, who died in 1991--to theoretical physicist Daniel Amit of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Their recommendation went to the SFP, which administers the prize. But a concerted campaign of opposition to the award began in Lebanon almost immediately afterwards, and officials at the French embassy in Beirut and the foreign affairs ministry in Paris became embroiled in the affair.

Early last month, SFP officers decided to overturn the decision and leave the medal unattributed for 1998. Gérard Toulouse, a noted theoretical physicist at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris who originally created the Rammal Medal, accuses the SFP of caving in to the pressure. But SFP officials, and some members of the prize jury, insist that the jury's vote to award the prize to Amit was invalid because a Lebanese juror was discouraged from attending its meeting.

The dispute is all the more poignant because Amit is an outspoken opponent of Israel's continuing occupation of southern Lebanon. He spent 2 weeks in a military prison in 1982 for refusing to serve in the Israeli army during its invasion of that country. Indeed, all parties to the controversy agree that, aside from his nationality, Amit was an ideal candidate for the annual prize. ENS physicist Antoine Georges, a jury member who strongly supported Amit, says "it seems very shocking to me that the SFP could decide to not give a medal on the basis of the nationality of the candidate."

Physicist Roger Balian, who was president of the SFP until early February, maintains that awarding the medal to Amit would have "created hostility between Lebanese and Israelis, which contradicts the aim of the medal....We cannot give this medal to an Israeli without a lot of psychological preparation." The sad affair has even called into question the future of the prize: The SFP is now studying whether to continue its sponsorship of the Rammal Medal.

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