Firing of Israeli Academics Fuels Debate over Use of Political Boycotts

For Bar-Ilan University senior lecturer Miriam Shlesinger, the entire “sad” affair began in April when a longtime colleague e-mailed her a plea to join a boycott of Israeli academics.

The surprising e-mail to Shlesinger, a professor of translation studies, came from her old friend, Mona Baker, at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in England.

The e-mail alerted her about an April embargo of cultural and scientific links with Israel that a few British academics had launched to pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip following its incursions there.

But Shlesinger told Baker she couldn’t back the boycott “because academic life should be separate from politics,” Shlesinger told JTA this week.

The exchange led to an even more surprising event that touched off an international furor in academic circles over questions of blacklisting, intellectual freedom and anti-Israel motivations.

It also has become a lighting rod for an increasingly strident debate about the use of boycotts to protest Israel policies.

In June, Baker asked Shlesinger and Gideon Toury, a professor of translation studies at Tel Aviv University, to resign from the boards of two translation studies journals Baker publishes and edits.

The Cairo-born Baker, also a professor of translation studies, said she was acting in the spirit of the anti- Israel boycott.

Since her colleagues represented Israeli institutions, she could no longer work with them, Shlesinger said she was told.

When Shlesinger and Toury refused to step down, Baker fired them.

“It’s sad because it’s so counterproductive and futile,” said Shlesinger, the daughter of Holocaust survivors whose son-in-law was killed in an ambush by Hamas gunmen.

“If I were to lie down in front of tanks in Jenin, I would still be an Israeli. I am being dismissed because I am Israeli — not for anything I’ve done or said,” said Shlesinger, who chaired the Israeli chapter of the human rights group Amnesty International from 1990 to 1993 and has been a Peace Now activist almost since its founding in the early 1980s.

The firings set off intense criticism, especially in the United States, where academics have largely lined up in support of Shlesinger and Toury and have questioned a series of attempts in Europe to isolate Israel and Israeli academics through boycotts.

Last week, the Association of Jewish Studies, based at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., denounced the removal of the Israelis and urged Baker to reinstate them.

“Political issues should not intrude on academic concerns and the intellectual pursuit of truth,” said Aaron Katchen, executive director of the organization of Jewish Studies professionals.

Katchen called Baker’s decision “egregious” and “unacceptable” and said she should be reprimanded if the Manchester Institute finds she violated any school policies.

Since e-mailing its protest last week, Katchen said, his group has received “several dozen” responses from its 2,000 members against the firings.

The controversy has sparked protest from other quarters as well.

Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard professor and leading scholar on Shakespeare who is president of the Modern Language Association, wrote letters to The New York Times and London Telegraph, among others, blasting Baker’s move.

Noting that Baker’s two journals to which the Israelis contributed concerned cross-cultural communication, Greenblatt said in a telephone interview this week: “It’s rather difficult to have intercultural communication if you exclude a whole county on the basis of nationality.”

And if Baker’s intent is to hasten Mideast peace, he said, her actions will accomplish the opposite.

Hopes for peace lie “in the fostering of relationships, even between people who haven’t spoken to one another.”

Several commentators have also said boycotts are not likely to help the peace process because they isolate the very people — liberal intellectuals and academics — who support peace initiatives.

Shlesinger herself reiterated that academics’ politics have no connection to their work.

“Even if Professor Toury and I were right-wing or we were settlers, we still shouldn’t be fired from an academic journal,” she said.

Just what motivated Shlesinger’s colleague and longtime friend remained unclear.

Baker could not be reached for comment, but several British media reports said she had become increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and was upset over Israel’s Operation Protective Wall, which was launched in response to a wave of deadly suicide attacks.

It was in early April, shortly after Israel’s operation began, that professors Steven and Hilary Rose of England’s Open University launched the campaign to boycott Israeli academics.

Advocates of a boycott say such actions can make a difference, with some citing the boycotts against the former apartheid regime of South Africa.

Hilary Rose has been quoted in newspaper reports as saying a boycott of South African athletes partially contributed to the end of that regime.

Her actions against Israelis, she was quoted saying in London’s Daily Telegraph, came because “we had become so exhausted by the horror of what is going on in Israel and occupied territories, it is a means of civil society expressing its disquiet.”

The academic boycott site also links to several tougher anti-Israel boycott measures, including one urging people to stop buying Israeli products and one calling on artists to cancel ties to Israeli arts events because of Israeli “war crimes.”

Reactions to the academic ban have ranged from outright support in England, where the British Association of University Teachers and the lecturers union have lauded the move, to opposition by a German scientific society, the Berlin-Brandenburg Scientific Academy.

Those behind the countermeasure, Eva Illouz, Aaron Ben Avot and Hillel Shuval, echo their American counterparts in saying that boycotts run counter to principles of academic freedom.

Among those signing on to the protest against the anti-Israel boycott was Pierre Atlas, an assistant professor of political science at Marian College in Indianapolis.

Atlas called the firing of the Israelis academics “repugnant.”

“The idea of singling somebody out just for their nationality violates the most basic precepts of academic freedom and academic discourse itself,” he said.

He noted that the Oslo peace process grew out of behind-the-scenes, informal contacts between Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals.

Unlike some other U.S. academics, Atlas said he felt it is clear what motivates those attempting to sever cultural and academic dealings with Israel.

“If people want to boycott Israel, it’s not because they’re opposed to Israeli policies,” he said, “but because they don’t like Israel.”

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