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?

By Siva Vaidhyanathan
Published June 27, 2002 3:53AM (UTC)
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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

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).

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