Descending the ivory tower

From the archive (legacy material)

Amina Elbendary | Al-Ahram Weekly | 27 January 2003

As the academic and cultural boycott of Israel gains momentum Amina Elbendary meets Mona Baker, one supporter whose position has excited vitriolic attacks.
Atrocities committed against the Palestinian people have reached levels that many in the West believe can no longer be tolerated or condoned, feelings that last April led to the launching of an academic boycott as part of a larger movement targeting Israeli institutional presence in the West.

On 6 April 2002 Steven Rose, professor of biology at the Open University and director of the Brain and Behaviour Research Group, published an open letter in The Guardian signed by 125 British academics: “The Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders. The major potential source of effective criticism, the US, seems reluctant to act. However, there are ways of exerting pressure from within Europe.”

The letter pointed out that “many national and European cultural and research institutions, including especially those funded from the EU and the European Science Foundation, regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts.” The signatories questioned whether it would not therefore “be timely if at both national and European levels a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians along the lines proposed in many peace plans”.

The letter quickly turned into a petition attracting 700 signatures from various countries, among them 10 Israeli scholars including Daniel Amit, Rachel Giora, Eva Jablonka, Ilan Pappé, and Tanya Reinhart. In April the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) voted that “all UK institutions of higher and further education be urged immediately to review — with a view to severing — any academic links they may have with Israel.” And in May the Association of University Teachers in Britain (AUT) voted for a funding boycott of Israeli universities.

In France the University of Lille has reportedly refused to cooperate with any Israeli institution. On 16 December the administrative council of Paris VI University passed a motion calling for an end to cooperation programmes with Israeli universities. But following a strong public campaign by politicians and the Jewish umbrella organisation CRIF, the university dropped its boycott plans on 6 January.

Debate has ensued among European scholars on the morality and validity of academic boycott. Many see it as an anti-Semitic attack on Israel, even though some of its supporters, like Steven Rose, are Jews. Others feel it runs counter to sacrosanct notions of academic freedom and the neutrality of science. But as Steven Rose told Al-Ahram Weekly in an e-mail interview, cooperation via the European Framework programme “is not free research and its aims are avowedly political — you can’t keep politics out of science by invoking abstract notions of academic freedom when scientific research is sponsored and firmly tied to the industrial and other goals of the sponsors.” Furthermore, as Susan Blackwell, a lecturer in English at Birmingham University, told the Weekly, Israeli authorities are continually closing down Palestinian universities and curfews and roadblocks make it difficult for many Palestinians to get to school; “if the Israeli government doesn’t keep politics out of academic life, I don’t see why anyone else should.”

It is difficult to gauge how wide the cultural and academic boycott has spread but it seems to be gaining momentum. Many Western scholars refuse to participate in conferences at Israeli universities, to take part in joint research with academics affiliated to Israeli institutions and even to publish research by such academics. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz all international conferences in Israel have been cancelled until 2004. But such decisions seldom make news and many cite safety reasons.

Some are more outspoken. In April Professor Ingrid Harbit, director of the Norwegian Veterinary School, refused a request for a DNA sample by the Israeli Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy in Jerusalem arguing that “against this background I find it impossible for me to deliver any material to an Israeli university.” An article by Oren Yiftachel, professor of geography at Ben Gurion University, and Asad Ghanem an Israeli Arab teaching at Haifa University, submitted to the journal Political Geography was reportedly returned unopened before the authors were asked to make certain politicised revisions.

David Slater, professor of social and political geography at Loughborough University and the journal’s editor, explained to the Weekly: “because of my support for the academic boycott I initially declined to take the paper. After discussion with a few colleagues I changed my position and sent the paper out to three referees all members of the journal’s board.” The paper was subsequently sent back to the authors for revisions. “Political Geography does not exclude articles from anywhere in the world,” Slater said.

The number of people applying for grants to the Academic Study Group on Israel and the Middle East, a fund that specialises in joint projects between Israeli and British universities, has dropped by a third this year, according to The Guardian. Some 600 scholars and students at Harvard and MIT (including Noam Chomsky) have signed a petition calling on the US government to make military aid and arms sales to Israel conditional on its compliance with UN resolutions ” [and] on MIT and Harvard to divest from Israel, and from US companies that sell arms to Israel”. The petition, modeled on petitions by academics from the University of California at Berkeley and Princeton University, also criticises attacks on Israeli civilians.

Many scholars who joined the boycott and acted on it have had to pay a price. Susan Blackwell removed links to Israeli institutions from her personal Web site and informed her Israeli friends of her decision. The Board of Deputies of British Jews in turn asked Birmingham University to remove from its Web site the link to Blackwell’s personal site hosted on university computers claiming it contained biased political views on the situation in the Middle East.

Mona Baker, professor of translation studies and director of the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology (UMIST), dismissed Professor Miriam Schlesinger (Bar-Ilan University) from The Translator and Professor Gideon Toury (Tel Aviv University) from Translation Studies Abstracts, two journals she partially owns and runs. In the latest editorial of The Translator she explains that “for as long as the boycott is in place no colleague affiliated to an Israeli institution can serve on the editorial board or the advisory board of The Translator or Translation Studies Abstracts.” St Jerome Press, which she owns with her husband Ken Baker, and which specialises in translation studies, has refused to supply Israeli universities with text books though it will supply Israeli individuals.

Baker’s decisions made her the target of attacks from both within and without academia. She was labelled an anti-Semite and a racist for allegedly “firing two academics” because of their race or nationality. The attacks did not identify the fact that the positions Schlesinger and Toury occupied were honourary positions on privately-owned journals and not salaried teaching positions at UMIST. UMIST was flooded with letters urging her dismissal.

The pressure prompted UMIST to begin an inquiry into Baker’s decision, even though it does not own the journals in question. UMIST, which received £36.9 million in public funds last year, was particularly vulnerable to pressure since it was negotiating a merger deal with the University of Manchester which requires official approval. The outcry also led to an Early Day Motion in July (EDM 1590) in the House of Commons condemning Baker’s action and stating that it “deplores discrimination against academics of any nationality, as being inconsistent with the principle of academic freedom, regards such discrimination as downright anti-semitic while pretending simply to be opposed to Israeli government policy… and calls upon UMIST to apologise for this disgusting act and to dismiss Professor Baker.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair took it upon himself to assure Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that he will “do anything necessary” to stop the academic boycott, adding that the findings of the UMIST inquiry had to “send a clear signal” that boycotts will not be tolerated. Given the level of pressure and intimidation it is remarkable that Baker stood her ground.

Baker, who is Egyptian by birth, was in Cairo this month, invited by the American University in Cairo’s Faculty for Palestine and the Women and Memory Forum to speak about her experience. At AUC and, last week, when we met for coffee in Maadi, Baker was remarkably composed for a woman who has been subjected to such vitriolic attacks and who is in danger of losing her job. She is confident she made the right decisions even as she acknowledges how controversial these are.

“One has to acknowledge that boycotts are controversial and blunt weapons. People genuinely feel strongly about them for a variety of reasons,” she explained to the Weekly. “There are a lot of people who are not Zionists and who genuinely oppose what I’ve done and my logic of it. Even a lot of people who signed the initial boycott criticised how I carried it out. They said it was too strong, it polarised people. Those who thought that the boycott is just about signing a piece of paper were shocked at what they’d done because they didn’t think it would have any consequences.”

Indeed, Colin Blakemore, professor of physiology at Oxford University and president of the Physiological Society, had initially signed the first petition calling for a moratorium of EU funding. Faced with a public denunciation campaign he has since reconsidered his position. Blakemore wrote to several newspapers to say that he was misled into signing the petition and was implicated against his intentions in the boycott of Israeli scientists.

There are others who have not joined the boycott but defend Baker’s right to support it. Some of them were also attacked. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement UMIST launched another inquiry amid allegations that professor of paper science Michael Sinnot referred to Israel as “the mirror of Nazism” in a personal e-mail to Stephen Greenblatt, professor of Shakespeare studies at Harvard University and president of the Modern Languages Association (MLA). Sinnott’s condemnation of Israeli policies was deemed anti- Semitic. He has since made a public apology saying “the e-mail was a mistake. It was written in the heat of the moment after reading what I considered to be an unfair article about the sacking in The Telegraph. I deeply regret sending it and regret any offence it has caused.” The results of the inquiry have not yet been made public but unconfirmed reports have it that Professor Sinnott has opted for early retirement.
Does this signal the downfall of the academic boycott movement as people who initially supported it distance themselves? Baker believes this is a stage every boycott has to go through. The South African boycott, she points out, was an idea floated in the 1950s and only got under way in the 1980s.

“The boycott will polarise people initially; some will walk out on it because they thought they were just putting their names on a piece of paper. Others will come out much more in support of it because they will get fed up with the intimidation and the campaigning against the few who are taking a stand. The more the circle widens and the more people stand up to them and win the more people will realise that they can do it and the weaker the Zionist lobby will become. That’s why my case is such an important test case; it’s not just about me. Also extreme gestures like this force the issue in the sense of forcing people to actually sit down and talk about what it means to boycott, what is the difference between institutions and individuals, for example.”

Many of the attacks on Baker are because her decision allegedly targets individuals. Israeli academics are generally left-leaning and among the constituencies more supportive of the peace process. The academic boycott is seen by some to be targeting the wrong people. Schlesinger, for example, for years a personal friend of Baker, was previously chair of Amnesty International in Israel. But Baker makes a point to distinguish between individuals and institutions, a distinction not carried by her detractors who see any action against an Israeli institution as anti-Semitic. But, she cautions, “anybody who thinks they are going to make any change in vicious, horrific policies like those of Israel and the US without affecting individuals is simply being naïve. In the choice between this or silence I know what my choice is,” Baker says firmly.

The campaign against Baker spurred a campaign in her support. Both sides claim to defend and champion academic freedom — either Schlesinger and Toury’s or Baker’s. In the context of the debate defining academic freedom many question the fate of Palestinian academia.

“The most shocking thing about all this,” Baker told me, “is the hypocrisy. These people spend all that time condemning an individual, whatever the rights and wrongs, for the sake of two Israeli academics. And they’ve never had anything to say about what’s happening in Palestinian universities. Such hypocrisy has to be exposed and challenged. At the moment it seems quite normal but we have to fight hard to say that’s not normal; it’s perverse.” And, as Slater points out, the sensalisation of cases like the Yiftachel/Ghanem paper, “has taken attention away from the plight of Palestinian academics, and the urgent need for sanctions against Israel.”

The personalisation of the debate has drawn many people in and increased their awareness of the Palestinian predicament. “My decision was really intended as a minor symbolic gesture,” Baker confided matter-of-factly, “but simply because of the arrogance of the Zionist lobby it’s out of the bag now. And it’s doing some good, I believe, in that it’s forcing people to really confront the issues. There is this personal angle to it; it’s touched their lives, it’s about people they know. So in a sense the Zionist lobby has done us a great favour because really without that kind of personal dramatised element many probably wouldn’t have bothered to learn more about the Middle East conflict.” The boycott has, predictably, also given rise to a strong anti- boycott movement.

Boycotters compare their campaign to that against South Africa — a view supported by Desmond Tutu and Ronnie Kasrils. The Israeli scholar Tanya Reinhart, for one, argues in an open letter to Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling that “even much before its present atrocities, Israel has followed faithfully the South African Apartheid model….What Israel is doing now exceeds the crimes of South Africa’s white regime. It has started to take the form of systematic ethnic cleansing which South Africa never attempted. After 35 years of occupation it is completely clear that the only two choices the Israeli political system has generated for the Palestinians are Apartheid or ethnic cleansing (‘transfer’).” And since many like Blackwell caution that “Israel is likely to use any attack on Iraq as a cover for transfer,” it has become imperative, argue the boycotters, to isolate Israeli institutions internationally. “The boycott is an act of solidarity with Palestinian academics and researchers but above all a way of increasing pressure on Israeli society and state, to increase their isolation until they are prepared to abide by UN resoloutions and seek peace with justice. Of course boycotts alone cannot achieve this but they are part of a much wider spectrum of activity,” says Steven Rose.