Israeli boycott divides academics

From the archive (legacy material)

Suzanne Goldenberg and Will Woodward | The Guardian | 8 July 2002

Sackings on two obscure journals fuel debate on cooperation with universities.
A pair of obscure journals run by a Manchester professor have become the focal point for an angry debate across the international academic community over a boycott of Israeli universities.
A decision by Mona Baker, a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester institute of science and technology (Umist) to sack two liberal Israeli academics from minor roles on her journals have provoked a stinging response from academics led by Stephen Greenblatt, the Harvard professor, Shakespeare scholar and president of the Modern Language Association of America.
In an open letter, Prof Greenblatt said he deplored Prof Baker’s “attack on cultural cooperation”, which “violates the essential spirit of scholarly freedom and the pursuit of truth”.
Prof Baker is one of the signatories of a British-led petition of more than 700 academics from several countries launched by Steven Rose, an Open University professor. Signatories including Oxford professors Colin Blakemore and Richard Dawkins say they “can no longer in good conscience continue to cooperate with official Israeli institutions, including universities”.
Ten Israeli academics have signed the petition. Similar calls have been made by the Association of University Teachers and the lecturers’ union, Natfhe and in April, a campaign to suspend European Union funding of Israel’s universities was launched in a letter to the Guardian.
In return, almost 1,000 academics with a similar international profile, led by Leonid Ryzhik, a maths lecturer at Chicago University, have signed a rival web-based petition condemning the original’s “unjustly righteous tone” and warning that the boycott carries “broader risk of very disruptive repercussions for a wide range of international scientific and cultural contacts”.
Prof Baker decided that, having signed the Rose petition, she could no longer work with Gideon Toury, a professor at Tel Aviv university who is on the advisory board of the Translator, and Miriam Shlesinger, a lecturer in translation studies at Bar-Ilan university who was on the editorial board of another journal, Translation Studies Abstracts. Both are published by Prof Baker’s Manchester-based firm, St Jerome. The Translator is the largest of the two journals owned and edited by Prof Baker but neither runs to more than 1,000 copies at a time.
In an email to Prof Toury on June 8, Prof Baker said: “Dear Gideon, I have been agonising for weeks over an important decision: to ask you and Miriam, respectively, to resign from the boards of the Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts. I have already asked Miriam and she refused. I have ‘unappointed’ her as she puts it, and if you decide to do the same I will have to officially unappoint you too.
“I do not expect you to feel happy about this, and I very much regret hurting your feelings and Miriam’s,” she said. “My decision is political, not personal.
“As far as I am concerned, I will always regard and treat you both as friends, on a personal level, but I do not wish to continue an official association with any Israeli under the present circumstances.”
Prof Toury replied: “I would appreciate it if the announcement made it clear that ‘he’ (that is, I) was appointed as a scholar and unappointed as an Israeli.”
A decade ago, Dr Shlesinger was chairperson of Amnesty International in Israel, and has been active in the last 21 months of the intifada in an ethnically mixed group that defies Israeli army blockades to deliver supplies to Palestinian towns in the West Bank. “I don’t think [Israeli prime minister] Ariel Sharon is going to withdraw from the West Bank because Israeli academics are being boycotted,” she said yesterday. “The idea is to boycott me as an Israeli, but I don’t think it achieves anything.”
The prospect of an academic boycott has been hotly debated in Israeli academic forums and chat rooms for weeks. Although about 10 Israelis signed the original manifesto from Steven and Hilary Rose, most academics inside the country are opposed to the boycott.
International academic conferences have been cancelled up to 2004, and professors from abroad are refusing to travel to Israel for joint research projects, in part because of fears for security but also because such collaborations are increasingly seen as political statements.
“I am certainly worried,” said Dr Toury. “Not because of the boycott itself but because it may get bigger and bigger so that people will not be invited to conferences or lectures, or periodicals will be judged not on merit, but the identity of the place where the author lives.”
Prof Baker said the interpretation of the boycott was her own and she did not necessarily expect other signatories in a similar position to follow her lead.
“I’m damned if I’m going to be intimidated. This is my interpretation of the boycott statement that I’ve signed and I’ve tried to make that clear but it doesn’t seem to be getting through. I am not actually boycotting Israelis, I am boycotting Israeli institutions.
“I am convinced that long after this is all over, as it was with the Jews in the Holocaust, people will start admitting that they should have done something, that it was deplorable and that academia was cowardly if it hadn’t moved on this.”
Prof Baker, an Egyptian, said she was bemused by the row over two “tiny” journals. She has been at Umist since 1995 and a professor since 1997. A spokeswoman for the university said yesterday: “This is nothing to do with Umist. The boycott documentation clearly states Mona Baker signs it as an individual.”
Liberal Israeli academics argue that the boycott will damage one of the last remaining preserves of dissent in a country which has become increasingly intolerant of those who question the hardline policies of Mr Sharon.