When Prof. Mona Baker of the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) dismissed professors Miriam Shlesinger and Gideon Toury from the editorial board of her translation journals last June, she had no inkling of what a storm she was brewing.
The dismissal of Shlesinger, of Bar-Ilan University, and Toury, of Tel Aviv University, came in response to an open letter calling for a moratorium on European funds to Israeli academic institutions "until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians," which had appeared in The Guardian a few weeks earlier.
A dismissal from an obscure publication of limited circulation would not normally prompt a hue and cry. But this was different. It was the first open boycott of academics in Britain on the grounds of their citizenship.
The news of the boycott spread like wildfire. UMIST declared that the journals did not belong to the university, and was pilloried for washing its hands of the affair. As for Baker, she was castigated by members of the academic fraternity and her actions were harshly condemned in numerous academic journals; her computer was inundated with vitriolic e-mails, and she was hounded by journalists. A few days later Baker disappeared from the public eye; the university switchboard redirected telephone callers to her e-mail (which she ignored), and she has since refused to speak publicly. But by then it was too late. The can of worms had been forced open.
Shortly after the publication of the Guardian letter, its author, Prof. Steven Rose (see box), published a Web-based petition in which he declared that he "cannot in good conscience continue to cooperate with official Israeli institutions, including universities... and will attend no scientific conferences in Israel [or] participate as referee in hiring or promotion decisions by Israeli universities, or in the decisions of Israeli funding agencies."
Some 120 names were attached to this new petition (some without consent) and a French translation drew more than a thousand names. This, in turn, prompted a counter-petition calling on academics to voice their opposition to the boycott, which produced a proliferation of related sites, manifestos, and open letters on the Web. A series of anti-Israel resolutions drew more attention to the boycott: The Independent newspaper called for a general boycott of Israeli academics; the lecturers' union, NATFHE, adopted a resolution to sever academic ties with Israeli institutions; and a call to boycott Israel appeared in the French paper Lib ration.
While essentially an academic issue, the debate has long ceased to be confined to academic musings by those ensconced in their ivory towers. Intense e-mail exchanges are taking place; journalists and political activists are taking sides and registering their protests. Hundreds of reports, statements, essays, and articles on the topic are being circulated, and it is still the subject of radio programs, editorials, and letter columns in academic journals and daily newspapers.
In Britain, political figures and prominent members of the Jewish community have been pulled into the debate and asked to take a stand. In July, then-secretary of state for education Estelle Morris publicly condemned Baker's actions, saying that "any discrimination on grounds of nationality, race, or religion is utterly unacceptable."
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks branded the boycott "an assault on the very principles of freedom of speech and association on which the university (and a free society) depend."
During a meeting with Sacks, Prime Minister Tony Blair assured him that he would do "anything necessary" to stop the boycott.
Supporters of the boycott have also enlisted heavies: Nobel Peace Prize winner (1994) and anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu threw his weight behind the boycott, comparing sanctions against Israel to those imposed on South Africa. In an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune, he noted that "similar moral and financial pressures on Israel are being mustered one person at a time, [and] many South Africans are beginning to recognize the parallels to what we went through."
Shlesinger - the first casualty of this war of words - sees things differently. "For better or for worse, Israel is not South Africa," she says, "and those who believe that the proposed boycott is likely to make the slightest contribution to the Middle East are mistaken."
Anyone who knows Shlesinger would know that this is not an attempt to defend Israeli policies. If anything, it is the opposite. "Anyone who thinks that [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is going to take even the slightest bit of notice of academic boycotts is incredibly short-sighted, and knows nothing about the mind-set of this kind of politician," she says.
Shlesinger describes Baker's original actions as a slap in the face. Eight months later, the disappointment runs deep. "It pained me to realize, over and over, that knee-jerk reactions were no less common among supposedly brilliant academics like Mona than among any other group. I am not going to sever ties with Mona, and I am not going to counter-boycott her publications. But it pains me to think that they will never really try to see the whole picture; that they - especially Mona - will never stop to think that they are achieving absolutely nothing constructive. It is extremely frustrating to me to realize that there can be no real dialogue. Mona, with whom I used to have good conversations about all sorts of subjects, is no longer able to hold a dialogue with me, or with Gideon [Toury], who happens to be one of the foremost scholars in our field."
Meanwhile, the two sides of this debate remain entrenched in their positions.
In October, the acquisitions department of Bar-Ilan University sent a memo to St. Jerome Publishing (Baker's publishing company) about a book on translation which it had ordered in May. It was returned with a handwritten note reading: "Unable to supply. Israeli institutions are boycotted due to actions of Israeli government." That same month, the Board of Deputies of British Jews lodged a formal complaint against Sue Blackwell, an English lecturer at Birmingham University whose Web site contained links to radical Islamist organizations which glorify suicide bombers and compare Israel to Nazi Germany.
The Guardian, which hosted the kick-off to this vitriolic match, recently devoted its front page to a story involving Dr. Oren Yiftachel, a political geographer at Ben-Gurion University. Yiftachel, an ardent opponent of Sharon's government, submitted an academic paper (co-written with an Arab-Israeli academic from the University of Haifa) for publication in Political Geography, a British periodical. The editor, David Slater, returned it with a note saying that it could not consider an academic paper from Israel.
In practice, however, overt cases of academic boycotts (and Yiftachel's case is not so clear-cut because the editors of the publication are disputing the facts) are rare. Israeli academics have not been fired from their posts and the resolutions adopted by the academic unions have not been implemented. Even the original call for a moratorium on research funds to Israel has come to naught: Philippe Busquin, the EU commissioner for research, ruled against any such sanctions.
"The reported boycott of Israeli academia must be happening somewhere else," says Dr. Aaron Benavot, a senior social-sciences lecturer at the Hebrew University, "because it certainly does not appear to have gathered pace here in Israel... I have been involved in numerous meetings, workshops, and discussions - both formal and informal - with academics throughout Europe: in Italy, France, Portugal, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Belgium, as well as the UK. If the boycott led by British academics is indeed gathering converts, I, as an Israeli researcher, should have encountered considerable hostility - some overt, some subtle - from my interlocutors. That simply has not been the case."
So, is all this much ado about nothing?
"In quantitative terms, it doesn't amount to very much," says Prof. Michael Yudkin, a lecturer and researcher in the Department of Biochemistry at Oxford University. "So in that sense it is a storm in a teacup. But I do see why Israelis are very upset at being singled out. Nobody is proposing a boycott of the Chinese government over what it is doing to the Tibetans. There is a principle at stake - however obscure the journals may be - and it needs to be addressed."
The Israeli case aside, Yudkin decided to look into the issue of boycotts in general within the "universality of science," a statute of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ISCU) which was put in writing before World War II. This principle clearly rules out any discrimination against scientists on the grounds of race, age, political stance, nationality, religion, or citizenship.
"The aim of the group," he explains, "was to examine the question of whether boycotts of scientists are ever permissible and, if so, under what circumstances." To this end, Yudkin set up a study group with three other scientists: Oxford professors Colin Blakemore, Richard Dawkins, and Denis Noble. Over three meetings, the group hammered out a report which they intend to publish soon in the scientific journal Nature.
The composition of this group is, in itself, interesting because Blakemore and Dawkins are both signatories to the original letter in The Guardian. Blakemore, who is president of the Physiological Society, denies that the letter amounts to a boycott of individual academics. This is disputed by other academics, who view economic sanctions on Israeli academia as tantamount to a boycott. However, Blakemore has been wrongly associated with other petitions and has strenuously rejected any association between himself and Baker's - or any other - calls for a boycott of Israeli academics. Moreover, he is planning to take part in a conference in Jerusalem in March.
Yudkin: "We agreed unanimously that the principle of 'universality of science' was extremely important to uphold. Science is for the benefit of all mankind and ought to be judged on its own merits rather than on those of the person making the contribution. The flow of information doesn't stop at international boundaries and cooperation between scientists must transcend politics.
"However, he qualifies, it is possible to imagine extreme circumstances in which the principle may have to give way to conflicting imperatives, but the threshold to justify such a step is extremely high. In such a case, a boycott would have to be part of an extensive program of measures, including diplomatic, economic, cultural, and sporting sanctions, in a collective expression of horror against a regime and with the intention of averting some foreseeable disaster."
Prof. Avi Shlaim, who teaches international relations at St. Antony's College, Oxford, also sounds a warning against implementing an academic boycott. "I'm for a boycott of Israeli goods," says Shlaim. "Israel does 40 percent of its trade with the EU and very little of its trade with the US, so EU economic sanctions against Israel would be effective, and I'm in favor of them, as well as an arms embargo. But a cultural and academic boycott is an entirely different proposition: that wouldn't hurt the government. On the contrary, it would play into the hands of the government, because the government would say, 'You see, there is anti-Semitism, there is hostility towards us as a people. We are all in the same boat, so you should rally behind the flag.'"
Shlaim touches on an issue which offers, at least in part, an explanation for the intensity of the current controversy: Many regard the boycott as a manifestation of a new wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across Britain.
The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) recently warned of a marked increase in anti-Jewish hostilities on campuses throughout Britain. Last November, in the run-up to a motion at Cambridge University calling for a boycott of Israeli goods, mezuzot were ripped off Jewish students' houses. In Leeds, bricks were thrown through the windows of Jewish students' houses and kippot were ripped off the heads of Jewish students. There were further anti-Semitic incidents at more remote campuses, such as Aberystwyth in Wales.
"Jewish students have become a target for anti-Israel feelings over the last year," says UJS fieldworker Jess Lipman. "We hear of Jewish students who are afraid to tell people that they are Jewish."
Is a Judeophobic wind blowing in Britain or is the current spate of anti-Israel attitudes a legitimate expression of protest against Israel's treatment of the Palestinians? The question has prompted intemperate debates, and has pitted academics against each other, with each side trying to enlist recruits. The subject of the boycott periodically resurfaces in the media. Some claim that by giving it exposure, the media are giving the issue a new lease on life, resulting in an increase in anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents.
Ian Katz, editor of the G2 section of The Guardian, strongly disagrees. "If a boycott was in effect operating, I thought it was extremely important to identify how it was being imposed, what its effects were and what the arguments surrounding it were. To suggest that we are keeping the flame going is preposterous. It is true that the boycott was first mooted on the letter pages of The Guardian and that much of the debate about its ethical merits and appropriateness has taken place... [here], but that is a reflection of the readership of the paper - both left-leaning and disproportionately represented in academia - rather than a reflection of a policy adopted by the paper."
Within the Jewish community, the division is thrown into even sharper relief. Writing in The Guardian, Rabbi David Goldberg, of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, calls for "a sense of proportion."
"We should never be complacent or cease to be vigilant about anti-Semitism. But at the present time, it is far easier and safer to be a Jew than a Muslim, a black person, or an East European asylum seeker. I wish my co-religionists would remember that next time they feel inclined to whine about perceived anti-Israel media bias."
The New Anti-Semitism is a collection of essays on the issue of modern anti-Semitism in Britain, which Dr. Paul Iganski, a sociologist at Essex University, is currently editing. It is being funded by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, an independent London-based think-tank which informs policy and decision-making affecting Jewish life in Britain, and will be published in April.
According to Iganski, Britain is home to institutionalized anti-Semitism. "It operates on a number of levels: on the street level, in the media, and among the elite. On the street level, we see the rise of anti-Semitic incidents; in the media, we're witnessing reporting which, in content and coverage, is blatantly skewed; and among the elite, Israel has become the new cause."
In a seminal essay, "Sense of Anti-Semitism," Antony Lerman, former chief executive of JPR, rejects this analysis. He contends that Jews outside of Israel find severe criticism of the Jewish state unsettling and seek to brand it anti-Semitic. "The 'new anti-Semitism' is not new at all," he charges, "but rather a device for delegitimizing any criticism of Israel and a political weapon in a global propaganda battle."
"There are many oppressive regimes where human rights are curtailed and trampled on," counters Iganski. "So it is incumbent upon us to ask: Why is Israel being singled out for opprobrium? It is difficult to determine whether the intentions are always anti-Semitic; but the result is anti-Semitic."
It is not only the intentions which are difficult to discern. Sometimes it is not at all clear if there is a boycott at all. An all-out boycott is a blunt instrument; there are other, less confrontational, means of applying it without incurring the wrath of your opponents.
John Levy is the director of the Academic Study Group, a British fund established in 1977 to develop academic collaboration between scholars in Britain and researchers from a range of disciplines in Israel. He is concerned about the less visible forms of protest among British academics.
"There are very few scholars overtly preaching and practicing the total ostracism of Israel," he says. "Most academics won't nail their colors to the mast, but, in practice, there is a slowing down of academic activity. I fear there are many Israeli academic casualties along the way in terms of rejection of Israeli articles for publication in international journals, the withholding of invitations to conferences, and Israeli exclusion from international comparative research projects. That could amount, de facto, to a passive boycott of Israel."
This is a worrying trend, not least because one of Israel's greatest exports is its brainpower. Levy agrees: "In gerontology and economic games theory, Israelis are playing amazing international roles. Israel punches well above its weight, and the sheer quality and scale of research that pours out of Israel is completely disproportionate to the size of the country."
It is precisely this exclusion of Israelis from academic exchanges and publications which angers Baroness Susan Greenfield. "It's a spiteful, petty gesture and very serious," says Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and director of the Royal Institution, England's oldest independent research body. "If academic papers are not published, particularly in the biomedical sciences, it could ultimately have a negative impact on health, because new findings will not be published and subsequently will not reach those who may benefit from them. It's reprehensible."
The sense of frustration is tangible. "Thousands of hours have been spent by both 'sides,' discussing, rebutting, formulating responses to this move," says Shlesinger. "And what has it gained? What good has it done? None! It has not helped the Palestinians in the least. Its sole plus has been to show Gideon [Toury] and me that we have many friends - people we knew before and people we did not know, Jews and non-Jews, colleagues and people in very different disciplines, Israelis and people abroad. I suppose Mona too has discovered many friends. But has she helped the students at Bir Zeit or the children in Jenin or the curfew-stricken inhabitants of Bethlehem? Has she tried to use her Western education, her brilliant mind, her resourcefulness and her skills to seek a solution? To me it seems that she has not. The most that a boycott may achieve is a sense that the 'boycottee' has been punished. But then what?"
Greenfield has no doubt as to the place of political protest among scholars. "They are certainly allowed to have opinions," she says, "but academics are no more authorized to comment on political issues than taxi drivers."
An inteview with a conscientious objector
Steven Rose is a professor of biology at the Open University. His wife, Hilary Rose, is professor of social policy at Bradford University. In April, they co-authored the letter in The Guardian which called for a moratorium of funds to Israeli academic institutions.
When you wrote the letter in The Guardian did you anticipate such a reaction? No, the magnitude of the positive response impressed us - people rushed to sign the call - but we were not prepared for the volume of hate mail that we received, which makes us very sad - and angry - that pro-Zionists cannot distinguish between a criticism of Israel's state policies and anti-Semitism. We have fought anti-Semitism and racism all our lives.
In retrospect, do you regret writing the letter?
Absolutely not. One of the nonviolent weapons open to civil society to express its moral outrage is the boycott. Internationally this has been most successful against apartheid South Africa. It took many years but ultimately shamed governments and multinational corporations into isolating this iniquitous regime. It was these individual ethical refusals which led us to make the restricted call for a moratorium on European research and academic collaboration with Israeli institutions until the Israeli government opened serious peace negotiations.
Have you ever been to Israel?
Yes, I have been to Israel; I have relatives there. I was brought up in a Zionist household and was a volunteer in 1967. I have even stayed on kibbutzim. But I last visited Israel in 1975 and realized then that it was far from my earlier dreams. It was actually in many ways a colonial society (Chaim Weizmann calls it that in his own autobiography), and several of my friends and colleagues lived in houses and on land expropriated from Palestinians.
Do you feel that Mona Baker's interpretation of the Guardian letter is a fair interpretation? There is no party line. These ethical judgments are individual and people agonize over them. But the attacks on Dr. Baker have been outrageous and far outweigh her action in removing individuals from honorific positions on the editorial board of her private and tiny journal.
Do you think academics should steer clear of politics? Should academic freedom not come above politics?
There can be no academic freedom without human rights, and whereas in Israel human rights are denied to an entire population, and the academic and most other freedoms are denied to Palestinian scholars and students, then to invoke academic freedom, in the way that opponents of the moratorium call have done, is deeply hypocritical.
Have you had words of support from Israeli academics?
You publicly renounced your right to live in Israel (granted to you by the Law of Return). What were the reasons for this?
Because as a British citizen, I already have a home and nationality. The right of return belongs to expropriated Palestinians, not to comfortably off New Yorkers and Londoners.
How has the media frenzy affected you personally?
I remain in contact with many in Israel and Palestine, including Israeli colleagues who disagree with the boycott call. The e-mails I have received are often obscene and I continue to receive such e-mails.
Can you point to any tangible gains so far?
It is clear that the boycott is biting, but these actions are slow to take effect. What is clear is that it has dramatically raised the consciousness of many in Europe and in Israel about the issues.