Correspondence with Miriam Shlesinger re Boycott

From the archive (legacy material)

Mona Baker/Miriam Shlesinger | Email Archive, Mona Baker | May/June 2002

The following emails were exchanged between 23 May and 6 June 2002. Various sections have been quoted in the press out of context. This is the complete record of the correspondence.

Date: Thu, 23 May 2002 20:15:46 +0100
From: Mona Baker <>
To: Miriam Shlesinger <>
Subject: Re: this and that

Hi Miriam,

Good to hear from you, even in these grim times, which are inevitably trying even for the best of friendships.

Re the letter to the Tunisian student: fine, as far as I’m concerned, feel free to send it, though I can’t promise to be able to help if he gets in touch. I’d love to, but I can’t cope with all the requests that come in, and I give priority to requests from Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Iraqis at the moment.

I was intending to write to you and to Gideon soon – I’ve been putting this off for a long time, because I find it very upsetting. Nevertheless, as I’m sure you know I have signed the academic boycott against Israel several of them, in Europe and internationally) and in fact I am actively campaigning for boycotting not only Israeli Academia but all Israeli products. I am sure you can understand why, even if you don’t agree with it personally. Indeed, I am reassured by what I have seen so far of the support of many Jews and not an insignificant number of Israeli academics and non-academics for a total international boycott of Israel. I went to a rally in London last Saturday, in which I am pleased to say anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist Jews calling for boycotting Israel were very prominent.
At any rate, the point I’m getting at is that however much I respect you and Gideon personally, and regard you especially as a personal friend, I can no longer live with the idea of cooperating with Israelis as such, unless it is explicitly in the context of campaigning for human rights in Palestine. I am therefore hoping that you will not misunderstand my request for you to resign from the Editorial Board of The Translator (and I will also be asking Gideon to resign from the advisory board of Translation Studies Abstracts). This does not mean that I don’t want to remain in touch with you on a personal basis, as friends, but I do not want our friendship to be mistaken in any way for implicit support of a country and a government which I so strongly disapprove of. Just to put things in context, I ought to say that I was in Egypt and Bahrain during the worst of the Jenin atrocities, and I saw with my own eyes on the TV screens Israeli bulldozers flatening out buildings with people still in them. In fact, some of the scenes we all watched on television, like the sight of a decapitated child drenched in blood in the ruins of Jenin, made many people physically sick, and still give me nightmares now! That’s not to mention the wilful destruction of buildings, computers, the whole infrastructure of the region, and the targetting of ambulances, etc.

I’m sure I don’t need to describe all these horrors to you and that you are not among those insensitive and arrogant Israelis who believe it’s all about self defence and that Palestinians have no human rights.

Finally, as a personal friend and someone I know has a stronger conscience than most Israelis seem to have, I hope that you will eventually come to the conclusion that you too ought to be considering signing the academic boycott against Israel (like other Israeli academics are increasingly doing).

I hope this is not going to be the end of our friendship Miriam, but rather a redefinition of it that takes account of the grim times in which we’re living and our responsibility to other human beings.

Take care, and do keep in touch.



To: MonaBaker
From: “Miriam Shlesinger”,
Date: 25/05/2002, 08:53 PM
Re: Fw: Academic Boycott

Hi Mona,

It occurs to me that you might not have seen my response to your appeal (sent out in April, I think). I believe you were abroad and incommunicado at the time.

How I yearn for the day when the most outspoken supporters of the Palestinian cause will focus on RESOLVING the conflict (by whatever approach and on whatever terms they consider appropriate), rather than exacerbating it (by means that cannot possibly help solve the problem!). But to each his own view of what works best.

Alas, most Israelis have nowhere else to go, and are disinclined to drown themselves in the sea or to be blown to smithereens. Hence, we MUST try to solve the problem – through information (not disinformation!) and mediation – preferably not through know-it-all, exploitive American or

European “experts” but precisely through brilliant, committed people like yourself who could make an enormous CONSTRUCTIVE difference. ANYTHING you suggest (short of mass suicide/killing of Israelis) would probably be acceptable to me, at least, if it came from a position of wanting to promote peace rather than deepen the hatred. And this in NOT in any way to imply that I support what the Israeli government is doing (you know that for the most part, I don’t). The events in Jenin will be just one tragedy in an endless line of tragedies (for both sides, of course) unless we stop the chain of hatred. Peace is ultimately the only means of lifting the Palestinians out of their present impossible situation.

I will continue to demonstrate against Sharon, to send packages to refugee camps, to support those who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories – regardless of whether you “fire” me from your Board or whatever. And I will continue to cherish the memories of our times together, and of all you did to me, regardless of anything you say or do.

My Palestinian friend (an interpreter) who lives in Ramallah, harbors far less hatred of Israelis (as such) than you do – not because she suffered less (she has suffered a great deal), but because she has seen things with her own eyes and knows that the picture is far less simplistic than you apparently believe. She too would like us all to disappear tomorrow (both sides seem to enjoy that fantasy…), but unlike you, she knows that Israel is part of reality. (A historical discussion of how and why this is so could go on forever; life is too short for that.)

OK, enough ventilating. Please read my response. It’s much milder than the above paragraphs, which were written in great emotional anguish.

Yours, as always –


To: “Miriam Shlesinger”,
From: Mona Baker, 114064.3155
Date: 25/05/2002, 20:29 PM
Re: Fw: Academic Boycott

Hi Miriam,

Yes, I had seen your response, and the responses to your response. I do understand what you’re saying, but I also understand that without an international outcry and outright refusal to give an air of legitimacy to state terrorism, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid of the worst kind, no amount of internal pressure from a few academics in Israel is ever going to change anything. The Israeli academics and the many Jews who have signed various boycotts understand this, and understand that people like myself are not against them personally, and don’t even ‘hate’ Israelis. Yes, I disapprove of Israel, as a terrorist and racist state built on a mixture of naive and ruthless notions (open our doors to all the Jews in the world, without admitting that this inevitably means more and more dispossession of Palestinians, more killing, more hoarding of resources such as water, and ultimately more violence from a population that has been reduced to live like animals in refugee camps while the ever rising number of new Jews are accommodated on what was once their land and the land of their fathers and grandfathers before them).

The Israeli academics who are signing the boycott disapprove strongly, as you do, of what is being done in their name, but they are realistic about where the change can ultimately come from. It certainly won’t just come from a ‘democratic’ nation that has voted people like Netanyahou and Sharon in, knowing very well what Sharon did in Lebanon and elsewhere. The pressure has to come from outside, and it would be naive to think that this can happen without causing decent Israelis like yourself a great deal of anguish. I do feel your anguish, and it hurts me too, but this is not about you and me personally, however much we feel for each other. And it is certainly not about anti-semitism (there is a rising tide of Jewish denouncement of Israel and Zionism worldwide, and I see it with my own eyes everywhere). There are many Jews around the world who refuse to become Israelis, because they understand that this has to be at the expense of others.

I do also understand and accept that whatever the rights and wrongs of the current situation, Israelis like yourself have nowhere to go now and have to stay where they are (this of course does not mean that all the Jews under the sun can keep arriving to Israel and just say we’re here now and we can’t go away). And if you think that you can continue to condone the importation of Jews into Israel without more Jenins and more suicide bombings then you are kidding yourself, and you’re too intelligent to do that, I hope. I know that there are some people in the Arab World and elsewhere who would still like to throw all Israelis (maybe even all Jews) into the sea, and I certainly argue against them as well, but the vast majority – believe it or not – accept that Israel now exists among them and would have been prepared to make their peace seriously with the Israelis, had Israel given up its so-called right to import Jews right left and centre, continue to build settlements and discriminate against Palestinians, etc. etc. It’s no use asking people like me to denounce suicide bombing – we all know that murdered babies are murdered babies, and very few people I know like to see Israelis (or anyone else) blown up. But we also understand that Palestinians have been driven to the absolute limit, and that people who blow themselves up are not doing it for fun or because they are a murderous lot – they probably don’t even have a rational explanation of why they’re doing it. They do it because they have seen their homes taken away from them, their children starve, their people killed all around them – they do it out of desperation. They risk their lives throwing stones, knowing that the Israeli soldiers will shoot back at them. This cycle of desperation and violence is not going to be solved by us denouncing it – these people have been left with nothing to lose, and they certainly couldn’t care less what you and I think. There is nothing more dangerous than people in the position of having lost everything: their homes, their dignity, and their very lives. Israel brought this on itself, and continues to do so.

I know that your heart has always been in the right place, though we have always disagreed about the legitimacy and consequences of a Jewish state (which I and increasingly more and more people see as inevitably a racist nation). But it is not enough to have your heart in the right place. It is not enough to send food parcels to Ramallah and elsewhere – it might make you feel better and ease the hardship of a couple of people for a few hours, but they’re then back into the same desperate situation. If you really want to help (and I do believe you do) then work with people outside Israel to put international pressure on your government, even if this hurts you personally. Do not settle for watching Israeli television and CNN – read the Amnesty reports, if you don’t believe the rest of the world. Read the volumes of literature and websites written by Israeli and Jewish historians (not by Arabs). I don’t know what you’re referring to when you mention ‘disinformation’, but I do believe these sources, and I believe what I have seen with my own eyes and what I have been told face to face by intelligent, peace-loving Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, about what they are subjected to day in and day out, even during your government’s calls for so-called peace.

I don’t hate Israelis Miriam and I certainly don’t hate you or mean to punish you. But if you and other Israelis insist on seeing the attempt to denounce Israeli war crimes and put pressure on both Israel and America to clean up their act as a sign of hatred towards you as people, then so be it. There is more at stake here than your feelings or my feelings.
I wish you would sign the boycott statement Miriam, and come out openly and clearly against your country’s actions (without worrying about Israelis thinking the world is against them – it is and will continue to be until more of you make a clear stand and stop justifying the continued atrocities). But whether you do or not, I will still regard you as a friend, hope to spend time with you as friends (outside Israel), hope to welcome you again to our house. None of this will change, unless you decide to distance yourself. On a personal level, it need not change. But I stand firm on the boycott decision, however much it hurts your feelings and mine.



From: “Miriam Shlesinger” <>
To: MonaBaker
Subject: another round…
Date: Sun, 26 May 2002 09:12:06 +0200

Hi Mona,

Thanks for your long letter, in which you explain your position. I appreciate it very much, and I certainly appreciate the ending. I accept much of your analysis (not all, but we’ll leave the details and hairsplitting for a different round).

I would fully accept, in principle, a boycott on political grounds if it were against Israeli products, or against anything related to the current Israeli government. The point where we differ is on the relationship between academia and politics. I truly believe that science should be above politics. With absolutely no exceptions. If you considered me worthy of the editorial board before, then I remain worthy of it regardless of the deeds of the Israeli government. If you let science be delimited by the political affiliation of the scientist, then you are undermining the very essence of what science is about. If a Gideon Toury is prevented from contributing to the culture and know-how of Translation Studies, simply because he holds Israeli citizenship, then Translation Studies will have lost. I realize that if you have to choose between TS and the Palestinian cause, you would choose the latter, and so would I, but that’s not the point. The Palestinian cause will not be served by preventing Israeli scientists from “doing science”. There can be no discriminatory practices in science; the only criterion should be the quality of the scientist’s contribution to her/his field.

I don’t know if you have already seen the letter from my dean/boss at the college where I teach – and my response to her. She jumped the gun, very foolishly. (If she were not my boss, I would have been much nastier about her taking such liberties with this correspondence without asking me first.) Essentially, ousting an Israeli scientist for no other reason than his/her being Israeli is a form of racism, which is why your message caused incredibly emotional reactions among the few people to whom I showed it. I realize that your move is not anti-semitic, and is not even a matter of hating Israelis (I may have been carried away on that point in my previous e-mail). But even if I accept everything you say about Israel and the Palestinians etc etc, I simply do not see the point of this move – which is why I am not resigning.

One more thing on that subject: I had informed the Vice President in charge of research at my “main” university (Bar Ilan) of this problem. We are supposed to keep her informed of any repercussions of the academic boycott – and so I did, without thinking too much of it. I do not know her personally, and did not anticipate the vehemence of her response. I hope I have now succeeded in persuading her that hysterical reactions are counterproductive. (I don’t know what exactly she wants to do, but she’s furious. I’m not furious at all, just weary – and I’d much rather talk than fight…) Anyway, I have implored her not to use this case (your request for my resignation) as a casus belli, nor to mix anti-Israeli moves with antisemitic ones. My husband says that this is the biggest flaw of e-mail: things move too quickly, and it allows impulsive people to be even more impulsive.
Thank you for your friendship and also for your empathy on the personal level, and for the invitation to visit. I realize that you have to continue fighting the battle as you see fit, and I will do what I can to reconcile these different views of the relations between academia/science and politics.

Yours, as always –



From: “Miriam Shlesinger” <>
To: MonaBaker
Subject: Not sure
Date: Sun, 06 June 2002

Dear Mona,
We discussed some issues having to do with my role on the board, the (unholy) alliance of science and politics, and so on.

I don’t know whether this eventually involved Gideon, but I would appreciate knowing the bottom line with regard to my own role. Since I was/am not inclined to resign (for the reasons I gave), where do I stand now? If you’ve dropped your request, and that is the end of the story, I am relieved, and would like to put this behind us (without in any way attempting to play down the very real political and humanitarian concerns that we share). But I’m not sure whether that is the case, which is why I’m asking. Since it’s your journal, and you appointed me, I know you can also “unappoint” me; I would like to believe that you won’t use that prerogative, but I don’t know. Several people with whom I usually don’t have much contact have written to ask me about this, though I have no idea how they found out, and I feel that I need to have a clearer picture of what is happening.

Yours as always,



To: Miriam Shlesinger,
From: Mona Baker
Date: 06/06/2002, 14:03 PM
Re: Not sure

Dear Myriam,

I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear in my last message. I suppose I was trying to spare your feelings by not spelling it out – but yes, I am ‘unappointing’ you as you put it. I will write to you officially shortly (if you wish), in case you need something in writing for your institution.

I hope we can continue to be friends on a personal basis, and that you are clear about my motives for taking this difficult decision, even if you don’t agree with them. I don’t find the separation of science and politics convincing, as you know, especially as you can argue the same about just about every other social group: art and politics, sports and politics, etc. But see the attached for further agruments and counter-arguments, from Israeli and South African academics.

I know that my stand on this is going to make me unpopular with you, other Israelis, and academics elsewhere who see things differently. But I take courage from a recent message I received from an Israeli academic who signed the boycott and for whom I have a lot of respect. She said:

>”Thanks for your support. It is SO meaningful because we are isolated and actually persecuted in our own place. I personally am prepared to be ‘boycotted’ as an Israeli (and I am not going to take it personally). I think this is just a small price to pay for a cause I truly believe in. The Palestinians alas are paying an intolerable price. If any boycott including the kind that would lead to the isolation of people like me may open the eyes of the Israelis, then, off course, we will all benefit from it eventually. So I would encourage you to even boycott people like me.”

Warm regards,