Scholars under Siege

From the archive (legacy material)

Sara Leibovich-Dar | Ha’aretz | 20 November 2003

Although they have tried to downplay it, Israeli universities and faculty members are growing increasingly concerned that the worldwide academic boycott will weaken both Israeli science and the peace camp itself.
Ten years ago, Dr. Miriam Shlesinger, the current head of the Department of Translation and Interpreting Studies at Bar-Ilan University, was chair of Amnesty Israel, an organization known for its trenchant criticism of Israeli policy and actions in the territories. Shlesinger never imagined that she herself would be condemned and boycotted because of those actions. The day came in June 2002. Prof. Mona Baker of the University of Manchester, one of the two most important publishers in the world of translation studies, asked Shlesinger to resign from the editorial board of The Translator, a semiannual journal of which Baker is editor and owner. She also asked Prof. Gideon Toury, from Tel Aviv University, to resign from the advisory board of another journal she owns, Translation Studies Abstracts. When the two refused to comply, she fired them.
Her decision was political, not personal, she informed them, via e-mail. She stated that she ould continue to treat them as friends on a personal level but was unwilling to continue the official connection with Israel in the current situation. Shlesinger says she feels a great sadness at these developments.
“Baker is active in perpetuating the boycott,” she notes. “Recently she announced that her publishing house will no longer sell books to universities in Israel. That is definitely distressing, because she is a large-scale publisher. There are also implications at the international level. My feeling is that an injustice has been done, that what has happened is not worthy and even not intelligent. We expect a little more objectivity from the academic world. If she wants to help the Palestinians, this is not the way. What’s even more absurd is that she is also boycotting Prof. Toury, who is one of the pillars of translation research in the world, but at the same time she quotes him endlessly, because you can’t do scientific research in this field and ignore him.”
In an article published September 18, 2003, on Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair’s Counterpunch Website (, Baker and Lawrence Davidson elaborate the reasons for the boycott and take issue with their opponents. The boycott, they say, is a nonviolent struggle against academics who have not taken a position in support of their Palestinian colleagues: “… To date, all but a small number of Israeli academics remain quiescent in the face of the violent colonial war their government wages in the Occupied Territories. As a group they have had nothing to say about Israeli violations of scores of United Nations resolutions and the transgression of international law in the form of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” Baker and Davidson write.
They also contend that academics in Israel are an active part of the occupation, as most of them served in the army and many of them do reserve duty in the territories. Although there are some who think it would be better to conduct a dialogue with the Israelis and not boycott hem, “`intellectual exchanges’ have been going on between Israelis and the rest of the world since 1948 and with Zionists for longer than that. It has made not a bit of difference to the oppressive and colonialist policies of successive Israeli governments.”
In the authors’ view, “As in the case of South Africa, external pressure is perhaps the only way to move the Israelis to a realization that something is terribly wrong with their outlook and behavior and that there is a need to change both leadership and direction.”
Drawing another analogy with “white South Africa under apartheid,” Baker and Davidson say that “internally generated Israeli perceptions are so censored and inbred that their ability to understand the consequences of their national policies on the Palestinians is limited.” They also address those of their critics who claim they are inconsistent because they focus exclusively on Israel while ignoring all other military occupations, such as in Tibet, Chechnya and so on. To begin with, they say, “many of us do support well intentioned efforts to isolate other oppressive regimes beyond that of Israel. However, for a good number of those who support this boycott, the struggle against Israeli occupation is a high priority,” not least because “even the non-religious among us” have “emotional, cultural, or religious ties to the Holy Land … What the Zionists seem not to understand is that the place their mythology makes special for them, is also special to a lot of other folks based on other interpretations of the same myth and other forms of oral and written tradition as well.”
Boycott as social movement
The academic boycott of Israel takes many forms. In part organized, it consists mostly of private initiatives by faculty members, mainly in European universities, who believe that this is an effective means to express their protest against Israeli policy in the conflict with the Palestinians. Quite a few academics have been exposed to various aspects of this boycott.
The milestone in the spread of the boycott was in April 2002, when Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University in England, and his wife, Hilary, professor of social policy at Bradford University, sent a letter – signed by themselves and hundreds of other academics to the Manchester Guardian urging “national and European cultural and research institutions” to call a “moratorium” on support for Israeli institutions “unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians …”
Prof. Hilary Rose says she was “surprised by the speed at which we collected the signatures.” Speaking from her home in London, she explained, “Like others, I asked myself what I could do. I understood that just as a boycott was effective against apartheid in South Africa, it could also help in the Middle East. I sent e-mails to a few friends and we collected signatures very quickly.”
The Roses also lost control of the idea very quickly. A few days after their petition was published, a more sharply worded petition appeared in France. Hundreds of academics from around the world declared that they would not take part in scientific conferences in Israel or review work by Israeli scientists. From there the boycott spread like wildfire to every part of the globe. A similar petition was organized in Australia.
In France, the administrative council of the University of Paris 6 called on the European Union to break off all ties with universities in Israel (that resolution was finally rescinded in the wake of heavy international pressure). In Italy, 29 professors affiliated themselves with the British petition and 11 with the French petition.
Since the publication of the Roses’ letter 18 months ago, the academic boycott of Israel has been one of the hottest topics of discussion in the world university community. Hundreds of Internet sites address the subject, and debates for and against the idea are conducted in institutions of higher learning and in professional bulletins everywhere.
Says Prof. Michael Aizenman, a physicist from Princeton University, and a former Israeli who is active in the anti-boycott movement: “It’s possible that what we’re seeing now is a de facto reducing of ties without public pronouncements. The way the boycott works is that if someone wants to obtain support for a particular project he will be better off not inviting Israelis. This is a more worrisome situation than public squabbling. Things are happening but there is less talk about it.”
Amit Duvshani, a 26-year-old student at Tel Aviv University, got a firsthand lesson in the mechanics of an academic boycott. In July of this year Duvshani wanted to find a laboratory in a German or English university where he could do a doctorate in genetics. He sent his CV to Prof. Andrew Wilkie, a professor of pathology at Oxford University who specializes in the study of congenital defects in embryos. Wilkie replied immediately, rejecting the application: “I am sure you are perfectly nice at a personal level but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army.”
He added that he had “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.”
Duvshani did his military service in the Armored Corps, but says he did nothing immoral during his army stint. “I am aware that we are not always 100 percent okay,” he says, “but it’s a long way from that to making a judgment of all Israeli soldiers as war criminals. I don’t feel that I have to apologize for defending my country, and I have no control over it, either. The majority serve in the army. Didn’t the British invade the Falklands? Will he also refuse to accept a Basque student because the Basque underground detonates bombs in Barcelona?”
With the assistance of Jewish faculty members, Duvshani is likely to be admitted to a laboratory at Columbia University in New York. Wilkie apologized and was suspended for two months.
Cumulative effect
Prof. Roger Garrett, from the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Copenhagen, embodies the power of this worrisome social movement. Twice in the past year, Garrett declined to review papers by Israeli scientists and he also refused an invitation to attend a scientific conference in Jerusalem. A year and a half ago, Garrett signed a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli universities as long as the occupation of the territories continues. Since then he has been an active participant in the boycott.
“What can I as an individual do to bring about a change in the regional situation?” he asks in a telephone conversation from his office at the university. You are considered the most dangerous country to world peace. So what am I supposed to do? To sit idly by and watch the Palestinians suffer?”
How will you help the Palestinians by not reviewing papers by Israeli scientists?
“When Israeli academics are hurt they will influence their government to change its policy. My Israeli academic friends tell me that no matter what they do, things will not change. I believe that our activity will have a cumulative effect that will influence the government.”
Israel joins the boycott
The university establishment in Israel has tried to ignore the boycott. Internally, most of the country’s universities appointed people to deal with the subject, but no thorough study has been made and no university has accurate data about the scope of the phenomenon and the scale of its impact on academic life.
The universities have explanations for their disregard of the boycott. “If we make public what is going on it will cause damage,” explains Prof. Nina Teicher, vice president for research at Bar-Ilan University. According to Prof. Nachman Ben-Yehuda, dean of the Social Sciences Faculty at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the boycott is more smoke than fire. And Prof. Shimon Yankielowicz, the rector of Tel Aviv University, maintains that his institution wants to speak out strongly against the boycott, “but in the meantime there are only noises, and we haven’t been hurt.”
What riles Yankielowicz most is the Israelis who have joined the boycott. “That truly upsets me,” he says. Ten Israeli lecturers from various universities outraged their local colleagues by affiliating themselves with the British petition. In a few cases, students tried to organize boycotts of the Israeli academics. The University of Haifa established a special disciplinary board to judge Dr. Ilan Pappe, from the Department of Political Science, for joining the boycott and other matters. A charge sheet was prepared against Pappe and he was summoned to a hearing, but it was canceled at the last minute in the wake of international pressure.
The opponents of the Israeli academics who have added their names to the boycott do not come from the right only. One of their most outspoken critics is Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, a former education minister from the liberal Meretz party. “I share the criticism of the lecturers in question about Israel, but we have to differentiate between that and opposition to the existence of Israel. It is also academic madness for an Israeli academic to support a boycott of the institution in which he earns his living.”
Right-wing circles are even more outraged. “I try to enter the distorted head of these people,” says Prof. Arieh Zaritsky, a geneticist from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva and a member of Professors for Political Strength. “I understand that their disease is incurable. They are dirtying the minds of the country’s youth. How can they impose a boycott on an institution from which they receive a salary? Let them leave. They should go.”
Dr. Ilan Pappe rejects this criticism. He is convinced that boycotting Israeli universities is “a reasonable means of pressure. Only external pressure will persuade Israel to withdraw from the territories. The only thing this government understands is force. Ten years ago I believed that the forces of peace would be able to exert pressure on the government. Today I believe that, as happened in South Africa, we, too, need external pressure, because otherwise the situation will never end.”
Prof. Daniel Amit, a professor of theoretical physics at Hebrew University, joined the boycott “so that our country will understand that our actions have consequences and that we are not above the law. Israel is a signatory to cooperation agreements with the European Union in which it undertakes, among other stipulations, not to violate human rights. Since human rights violations are occurring, the agreements with the Europeans have to be canceled.”
As long as there are countries that perpetrate war crimes, drastic measures have to be taken against them, says Prof. Zvi Razi from the Department of History at Tel Aviv University, who signed the British petition. “The leadership is inflicting a holocaust on the country, Israeli society is committing suicide, and whoever can do anything about it should do so.”
As an Israeli citizen, aren’t you a party to everything that happens here?
“That’s true, there is moral responsibility. If you don’t agree, then either fight or leave. I am fighting.”
Even though you and your colleagues are being hurt by the boycott?
“And am I not hurt when people cut down Palestinians’ olive trees? I am hurt by the fact that I live in a society like this. That’s the problem with a boycott – it hurts both the good and the bad. In my field I am not being boycotted; everyone knows my views.”
Snowball effect
As Dr. Miriam Shlesinger learned, political opinions do not make one immune to boycott. A year ago, the editors of the British journal Political Geography refused to accept an article jointly written by Prof. Oren Yiftachel, from Ben-Gurion University, who is known for his left-wing views, and Dr. Asad Ghanem, from the University of Haifa. The article dealt with regime theory and, ironically, was critical of Israel. That didn’t help the two Israeli authors.
“The journal’s editors didn’t even open the envelope. They saw that the article had been sent from Israel and they sent it back,” says Yiftachel, who has been at the Washington-based United States Institute for Peace for the past few months. The rejection sparked a furor, in the wake of which the American editor of the journal agreed to referee the article.
“Since then the article has been in the referee process and I don’t even know whether it has been accepted for publication.”
Do you find that humiliating?
“Yes, and very unscientific, too. The scientific world has to be based on scientific quality and not on who your mother is. In the end, the boycotters will weaken the peace camp, some of whose members are in the universities. If the universities are weakened, that will be good for the right wing. I understand the reasoning behind bringing pressure to bear on Israel, but this method is invalid. It is more logical to put pressure on the United States so it will make its aid to Israel conditional on an end to the occupation. I am critical of what is going on in the territories, but a scientific boycott will not help.
“It is also flagrantly immoral and could have a snowball effect. If we are being boycotted, then why not boycott all articles by the Americans, because their country invaded Iraq? An international scientific boycott could be declared against any scientist anywhere whose country commits crimes, even though the scientist is not involved.”
Rejections and refusals
In the absence of any comprehensive university research on the subject, it is not clear how effective the boycott is. Prof. Paul Singer, a physicist from the Haifa-based Technion Israel Institute of Technology, who was chairman of the National Science Foundation for seven years, until 2002, says the foundation receives about 1,000 research proposals every year. Each proposal is sent to seven referees. In the past year, 25 prospective referees informed the foundation that they do not want to be involved in Israeli scientific research.
“Numerically, that is not a lot. On the other hand, in the past we never received negative responses of this kind,” Singer says.
Prof. Ben-Yehuda, the dean of the Social Sciences Faculty at the Hebrew University, has also encountered refusals. “Every promotion calls for an international referendum of six opinions. In the past few years the number of those refusing to give opinions has been on the rise,” he says. “They reply that they are unwilling to cooperate with universities of the oppression regime. One letter likened us to Nazi Germany. At first we didn’t reply to them. Some of them are very polite and don’t explain why they don’t want to take part. I am especially concerned about a de facto situation in which people don’t say they are boycotting the Israelis but in practice Israeli scientists are boycotted under other guises.
“For a long time not one Israeli has been accepted to genetic institutes in Europe, not because of anti-Semitism but for a variety of reasons. That is extremely damaging. What do they want? Is it realistic for us to put pressure on the government? Why don’t they demand that Russian scientists put pressure on their government to get out of Chechnya, or that Chinese scientists pressure their government to get out of Tibet, or for the Americans to leave Iraq? If the boycott succeeds, we will be in very serious trouble indeed. There is no Israeli science; we are part of the world.”
According to Marcel Chatton, director of Israd, the organization that mediates between European research programs and Israeli scientists and engineers, “There is a certain problem but not an epidemic … Those who don’t want to cooperate don’t always say why: they say that their group is closed already. I don’t have a scientific gauge to measure the decline in cooperation. My estimate is that the decline is about 10 percent.”
The European Union allocated about 20 billion euros for scientific activity over four years in the sixth scientific program, which got under way in 2002. In the fifth program, between 1998 and 2002, Israelis were accepted to 620 projects. Dominique Guntier, from the EU embassy in Tel Aviv, says that 140 Israelis have so far been accepted to the sixth program, which is about the same rate as the fifth program before the boycott began. “There were attempts at boycott, but no Israeli was hurt by it,” she says.
Hitting a nerve
Everyone agrees that the most damaging thing about the boycott is the refusal of scientists from the international community to attend conferences in Israel. It’s difficult to quantify, says Prof. Avishai Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University, but fewer and fewer academics are visiting Israel. Prof. Singer estimates that the number of international scientific conferences in Israel has fallen from about 20 a year in the past to about seven now.
Prof. Yaakov Ziv, president of the Israel National Academy of Sciences, observes that if the trend continues, “it is liable to result in growing difficulty to cooperate with the international community, and that will be hard to correct. Our view is that it is wrong to mix science with political disagreements. Science is a universal value. There is no national science.”
The boycotters are convinced that their greatest achievement is in making the public aware of the issue. “I am not disappointed,” says Prof. Susan Blackwell, a linguist from Birmingham University and one of the leading supporters of the boycott in England. “Campaigns like this go on for a long time. It took a long time in South Africa, too. I get a lot of hate mail, which proves that we have hit a raw nerve. What’s important for us is that we generated a good debate and drew attention to what is going on in Palestinian universities and schools.”
Blackwell runs a Website that is devoted to the boycott, but says that she herself was not active in boycotting anyone. “I will not take part in a conference in Israel and I will not be willing to give an opinion about Israeli scientific papers, but now I am editing a book for which an Israeli researcher will write an article. The boycott is not against people, it’s against Israeli institutions.”