Fired for being Israeli

Two noted Israeli scholars have been sacked from European journals, victims of a boycott against Israel. Why are progressive intellectuals descending to such bankrupt tactics?

Topics: Middle East,

Miriam Shlesinger is not the kind of academic who hides behind stacks of books and papers, happy with a calm career, satisfied with middle-class security, professional perks and a comfortable office chair.

Shlesinger is not only an internationally known translator and linguist. She has used her skills to translate for courts that are hearing charges of human-rights abuses and war crimes. She has run the Israeli chapter of Amnesty International. And she is a frequent critic of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But now, hoping for a way to stop the senseless killing in Israel and Palestine, a handful of European academics are pushing to punish Israeli scholars. And because she lives and works in Israel, Shlesinger is being shunned from her professional circles.

Shlesinger, a senior lecturer in translation studies at Bar-Ilan University, was dismissed from the editorial board of The Translator: Studies in Intercultural Communication. Another Israeli scholar, Gideon Toury, a professor in Tel-Aviv University’s School of Cultural Studies, was removed from the international advisory board of Translation Studies Abstracts.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 300 European academics have in the past few months signed a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli cultural and research institutions until Israel initiates serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians. There are now several such petitions in circulation on the Internet. One of the most notable was signed by such distinguished intellectuals as Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins — and by 10 Israeli scholars who don’t seem to sense the counterproductivity of such a drive.

That petition criticizes the fact that European cultural and research organizations give Israel privileged treatment as a European state when awarding grants and contracts. “Would it not therefore be timely if at both national and European level a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abide by UN resolutions and open serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League?” the petition asks.

And another petition, aimed specifically at severing scientific links between Israel and the rest of the world, was signed by Harvard biologist and public intellectual Richard Lewontin, among others. Its signators bluntly pledge: “Under these circumstances (Israeli human rights violations), I can no longer in good conscience continue to cooperate with official Israeli institutions, including universities … I will continue to collaborate with, and host, Israeli scientific colleagues on an individual basis.”

The call for peace and negotiations is unassailable. Everyone but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his allies agree they are necessary sooner rather than later. But these academics are punishing the most reasonable segment of the Israeli population for the sins of their rabidly militaristic leaders.

Serving on a journal’s editorial board is a mark of distinction and respect within an academic community. Board members have few specific duties in the production of a journal. The editor and publishers work with a team of outside reviewers to judge articles presented for publication. But the quality of a journal’s editorial board gives some indication of the relative prestige attached to articles published within a journal. A distinguished review board can attract the best articles. And board members influence the general direction and strive to maintain the overall quality of the journal. So removing these Israeli scholars from the boards of these journals might harm the journals more than the scholars. Still, it’s a professional insult to be removed from such an important post.

When I contacted Shlesinger, she revealed the explanation that journal editor Mona Baker offered for her removal. “The only thing that should have played a part in the decision to appoint, or to ‘un-appoint’ me is my work in my academic discipline, translation studies,” Shlesinger wrote in an e-mail. “The editor, Dr. Mona Baker, appointed me on that basis, but un-appointed me on a different basis (the fact that I am Israeli), and said so very explicitly.

“Here is what she wrote to me on April 23: ‘ … 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).’

“When I refused to resign she explained that she was removing me from the board. (The same happened with Toury a few days later).”

Baker, a professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, defends her decision by emphasizing that she did not take the action lightly. But Baker can’t see a way to divorce her intention to boycott Israeli institutions from its direct effect on individuals. “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). In other words, I am boycotting Israeli institutions through their representatives, rather than Israelis as nationals. I don’t know how else you can boycott an institution (in the abstract),” Baker wrote in a statement she sent via e-mail.

Baker emphasizes that Israeli academic institutions have the potential to influence their state’s policies, but they have chosen not to. “Institutions, anywhere, are part of the state in which they are located. But academic institutions are different in that they can work to promote or question their country’s policies, and to reach out or ignore their colleagues in academic institutions under occupation and oppression,” Baker wrote. “Although Britain and the States are heavily implicated in the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, the American and British academic communities have a long history of fighting oppression, both in Palestine and elsewhere. Israeli academia, by its own admission, has no record of even condemning acts of violence and oppression committed against their fellow academics in Palestinian institutions over the past 35 years.”

Despite the perception of institutional silence, there are many counterexamples of Israeli academics criticizing Israeli policy both in Lebanon and the occupied territories. For example, Avashi Margalit, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, has written that in applying “repressive measures” against the Palestinians, “Israel systematically violates a great many human rights.”

And Shlesinger responded to the criticism of institutional silence by pointing out that while Israeli academics are not a politically homogenous group, “the activities of hundreds of prominent academics in Israel against the occupation and oppression of Palestinian people are a matter of record. In fact, faculty members of all seven Israeli universities (as well as various colleges etc.) have consistently been the most stubborn and persistent segment within the Israeli population that effectively acted against the occupation. You may find our names on thousands of op-ed articles (in the British press too), on petitions and in descriptions of demonstrations against the occupation. Most of the peace movements — such ‘Peace Now’ … and others — were founded and sustained mainly by Israeli academics.” Shlesinger cites as an example of the critical activism of many Israeli academics a petition drive to convince the Israeli government to remove the Surda roadblock, which prevents academic activities at the Birzeit University in Ramallah in the West Bank.

I asked Shlesinger about the potential long-term effect of this boycott effort. First, she said, Israeli scholars in the translation field will be less likely to contribute to the journals once the boycott ends. In the meantime, running the journal without its usual substantial Israeli contributions will make it a lesser journal immediately and could jeopardize the careers of some younger Israeli scholars. Most importantly, Shlesinger worries that the whole affair has injured the sense of camaraderie, harmony, openness and trust within the profession. And that could have serious long-term effects on the discipline. These are also the first victims of any political conflict that degrades into actions that go beyond dialogue and argument. The battle over these academic journals only mirrors the miscommunications, mistrust and misperceptions that have stifled progress in the Middle East at large for decades.

Some have argued naively that scholars should assume a disinterested pursuit of “truth” and ignore the more mundane concerns of real humans who battle for scarce resources and live according to their prejudices. Others assert that no form of inquiry is immune from political influence, so why not engage in battle on all fronts, higher concerns be damned? While neither of these positions offers a usable vision of the special role of intellectuals in a tumultuous world, it’s reasonable to assert that despite our rarified working environments, intellectuals are still citizens of specific states, believers in certain faiths, and are all too fallible and foolish when it comes to the passions of a moment.

It’s understandable that a collection of concerned academics is deeply offended by the violent expansionist policies of the Sharon government. And we should expect academics to do what academics do — write and talk about their issues. But sometimes writing and talking gets frustrating when the other side (or anyone, for that matter) appears not to be listening. So academics occasionally engage in more direct action. And a boycott seems like the sort of thing one can do from a distance, with minimal effort and sacrifice. And that’s just why boycotts such as this are irresponsible. The boycotter gets to exercise self-righteousness without risk. And those innocents who have to live under very different conditions — unimaginable to those not in Israel or Palestine — endure all the costs.

Why would they want to punish their potential allies at a tense political moment? It’s clear that as tempers rise on campuses around the world, anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli commentary are mixing dangerously in close quarters, undermining serious criticism of Israeli policy. Recent unpleasantness at San Francisco State University shows how easily protests about Israeli actions can slip into the ugliest attacks on Jews. But more likely, these boycott efforts are the result of frustration about the general impotence of intellectual life during wartime.

Do these intellectuals really think that the Israeli government is going to rethink its policies because the mastheads of two obscure yet important journals lack Israeli citizens’ input? President George Bush couldn’t move Sharon. Neither could dozens of disillusioned Israeli reservists who are protesting the occupation. What makes these European academics think they can do more?

Academics have such a rich tradition of defending political dissenters within our ranks that we should be encouraging thinkers to engage in their professional activities within troublesome parts of the world. What if during the Cold War Western European academics had boycotted the work of all citizens working under oppressive regimes such as Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia?

In early 2001, Russian scientist Elena Bonner gave a speech about the current lurch back toward totalitarianism in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. In the speech, she pointed out that if not for Soviet scientists in the 1960s, anti-Soviet dissidents would not have had a sense of the shell of lies in which the government had encased Soviet society. Soviet scientists had communicated with the outside world. They had the power to let a little light and a little air into an otherwise blind and suffocating nation.

Already, the anti-Israeli boycott has disrupted the communal environment of science. Science magazine reported that an Israeli researcher asked an author of two recently published papers to supply cells from a clone that the author used in her experiments. The author declined, citing the protests against Israeli policies. It didn’t seem to matter to the author that the research being conducted by the group in Israel involves working with Palestinian scientists as well. Anyone concerned with peace and justice in the Middle East should applaud such collaborative research. Instead, these protesting academics are harming the very efforts they should be encouraging.

According to Science, the author’s refusal is a clear violation of the policies in place at most journals and commonly understood in the scientific community. When authors submit a manuscript, they make a commitment to supply cells, special reagents, or other materials necessary for verification. They are not free to violate that commitment once their paper has been published.

The violence in the Middle East has touched and moved people from all corners of the world. Those of us who feel for the hundreds of Israeli civilians and more than 1,000 Palestinian civilians who have been killed since the second intifada started in the fall of 2000 lament that religion and nationalism have prevented any of the leaders of those two nations from reaching across the divides of difference to take a chance on peace once again.

Academics and intellectuals have a duty to be politically engaged. But we academics should be above petty nationalism. We should link hands across borders in the spirit of frank and honest debate. We should not shut people out of our laboratories, libraries, and conference rooms because of the color of their passports.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is an assistant professor of culture and communication at New York University and the author of "The Anarchist in the Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control Is Hacking the Real World" and "Crashing the System" (Basic Books, 2004).

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>