A stormy debate has erupted in Britain following the sackings of two Israeli professors from language journals run by Prof. Mona Baker of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). Both Israelis, who had worked for the journals for three years, were forced to resign as part of Baker’s ‘interpretation’ of boycotting Israeli institutions.
Prof. Baker, a native of Egypt who has lived in England for 20 years, told The Telegraph: “I deplore the Israeli state,” and was quoted by the media as saying: “Israel has gone beyond just war crimes. Many of us would like to talk about it as some kind of Holocaust which the world will eventually wake up to, much too late, of course, as they did with the last one.”
Several British media commentators, including those from newspapers traditionally hostile to Israel, have strongly criticized the sackings of the Israelis. (See below for a review of the British media.)
One of the Israelis, Gideon Toury, a professor at Tel Aviv university, wrote to Baker: “I would appreciate it if the announcement made it clear that I was appointed as a scholar and unappointed as an Israeli.”
The other Israeli, Dr. Miriam Shlesinger, a respected American-born lecturer at the Bar-Ilan University, is former chairperson of Amnesty International in Israel, and regularly makes “solidarity visits” to the Palestinian Authority. She said: “The idea is to boycott me as an Israeli, but I don’t think it achieves anything. I don’t think Ariel Sharon is going to withdraw from the West Bank because of it.”
If you believe that Prof. Baker’s actions against the Israelis was improper, you may write her at:
===== THE GUARDIAN =====
Writing in The Guardian (July 10), under the headline “Firing on Our Friends,” Jonathan Freedland, usually a fierce critic of Israeli government policies, says: “Sacking two translators because they are Israeli is not just morally wrong, it is tactically absurd. We’ve had smart sanctions; now make way for dumb boycotts. And they don’t come much dumber than this: a campaign to exclude Israel from the world community of scholars. The idea is wrong in principle, doomed in practice and even a little cruel.”
Freedland continues: “When the Oxford don and critic Tom Paulin was quoted suggesting that Jewish settlers on the West Bank were Nazis who should all be shot, there were calls for him to be removed from his post. Rightly, the cry of academic freedom went up in his defence: thinkers should not be fired for their thoughts, no matter how difficult to stomach. But the Manchester move goes a crucial step further. Translators Gideon Toury and Miriam Shlesinger have not been [dismissed] because of their views, but because of who they are. This is rather more serious than a restriction on scholarly liberty; it is discrimination on the basis of national identity.”
Freedland notes that the people sacked “are the very people who are trying to persuade their fellow Israelis back towards compromise. They need a leg-up from progressives abroad, especially in desperate times like these.”
===== THE INDEPENDENT =====
Columnist Donald Macintyre writes in the notoriously anti-Israeli British paper, the Independent, under the headline “The Dangerous Repercussions of this Silly Spat Among Academics” (July 9). He writes:
“What repels about this approach is that the two academics were dismissed from the boards simply because they were Israelis. This a fate that was not even, for the most part, meted out to white South African academics at the height of apartheid. Above all the academic boycotters give lethal sustenance to the lie that such criticism, even if it isn’t simply anti-Semitic, amounts to saying that the state of Israel should not exist. If that’s what they think, then they should say so frankly…”
===== THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH =====
The Sunday Telegraph (generally more balanced toward Israel than other British publications), in its editorial “The Silence of the Dons” (July 7), criticizes the rest of British academia for not opposing the dismissal of the Israelis:
“It might be thought that the disclosure of this flagrant assault on academic freedom by Ms Baker, a senior scholar at a British university, would have triggered outrage on redbrick campuses and in ivy-clad quads. Not so. Even the authorities at UMIST have run for cover, saying only that they are ‘dealing internally’ with Mrs Baker’s actions. As Prof Greenblatt observes in his open letter to Mrs Baker, it is ‘particularly grotesque, of course, that the journals you run concern translation and intercultural communication’.”
===== LETTERS & PETITIONS =====
The letters pages of British newspapers, and particularly of The Guardian, have in recent days been full of correspondence both for and against boycotting Israel.
British-based Israeli personality Uri Geller wrote to The Guardian: “There is no boycott against Palestine. Apparently these conscience-stricken professors are happy to exchange ideas with an organisation which relies on children armed with rocks and teenagers brainwashed for suicide.”
British universities have so far reacted with deafening silence to this assault on academic freedom and racism against Israelis. It has been left to American academics, led by Prof. Stephen Greenblatt, an eminent Shakespeare expert at Harvard University [and president of the Modern Language Association of America], to condemn the sackings, and calling on British academics to defend academic freedom.
Prof. Baker is one of the signatories of a British-led petition of more than 700 mainly European academics launched by Prof. Steven Rose of Britain’s Open University. Signatories include some of the most eminent Oxford professors, including Colin Blakemore. This organized “academic boycott” is part of a campaign to suspend European Union funding of Israeli universities (though not, of course, the EU’s generous financing of Yasser Arafat). Surprisingly, 10 Israeli academics have also signed the petition.
One of the petition’s original signers, Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, described to HonestReporting member Matthew B. his decision to backtrack:
“I publicly expressed my regret at having signed the original letter. When I signed it, it was a measure of desperation… Steven Rose put the petition in front of me and I signed it (along with many others including Israelis, and Jews including Steven Rose himself) as an immediate gesture of solidarity with the Arabs of the occupied lands. Only later did I think through the implications of an academic boycott, and… hence my later recantation.”
HonestReporting believes that peace and prosperity for the Middle East will only come through mutual acceptance and accommodation, not embargoes and boycotts. We urge academics to sign the counter-petition, Academics Against Boycott, at: http://www.aaisc.net
===== AUGUST 2002 UPDATE =====
Mona Baker, the British academician who sparked an international scandal by dismissing two Israeli professors for the sole reason that they are Israeli, wrote the following in response to HonestReporting member Todd V.:
> From: Mona Baker firstname.lastname@example.org
“No one was sacked, because no one was employed. These are honorary positions… The two Israeli academics in question have been personal friends for many years (and I am most definitely not anti-semitic, anti-Jewish or even anti-Israeli as such)… I am not sure that the distinction between ‘individual’ and ‘state’ is possible any longer in this case.”