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July 26, 2002 - Image 28

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2002-07-26

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ligations I Firing of Israeli academics fuels debate

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Collegiate Bias

over use of political boycotts.


Jewish Telegraphic Agency


New York City
or Bar-Ilan University sen-
ior 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 message 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 scientif-
ic links with Israel that a few British
academics had launched to pressure
Israel to withdraw from the West Bank
and Gaza Strip.
But Shlesinger told Baker she could-
n't back the boycott "because academic
life should be separate from politics,"
Shlesinger said this week.
The exchange led to an even more
surprising event that touched off an
international furor in academic circles
over questions of blacklisting, intellectu-
al 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 transla-
tion studies at Tel Aviv University, to
resign from the boards of two transla-
tion studies journals that Baker pub-
lishes and edits. The Cairo-born
Baker, also a professor of translation
studies, said she was acting in the spir-
it of the anti-Israel boycott.
Since her colleagues represented
Israeli institutions, she could no longer
work with them, Shlesinger was told.
When Shlesinger and Toury refused to
step down, Baker fired them.
"It's sad, because it's so counterpro-
ductive and futile," said Shlesinger,
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 sup-
port of Shlesinger and Toury and have
questioned a series of attempts in Europe
to isolate Israel and Israeli academics.
Last week, the Association of Jewish
Studies (AJS), based at Brandeis
University in Waltham, Mass.,
denounced the removal of the Israelis
and urged Baker to reinstate them.

Miriam Shlesinger, a Bar-Ilan
senior lecturer in Ramat Gan, was
fired from her job working for a
British academic journal.

"Political issues should not intrude on
academic concerns and the intellectual
pursuit of truth," said Aaron Katchen,
executive director of AJS. Katchen
called Baker's decision "egregious" and
"unacceptable" and said she should be
reprimanded if the Manchester Institute
finds she violated any school policies.
Institute officials would not comment
on the controversy, though they posted
a statement on the school's Web site
saying "the Israeli academics should not
have been removed" and they were con-
ducting "an internal inquiry."
Since e-mailing its protest last week,
AJS has received "several dozen"
responses from its 2,000 members
against the firings.
Stephen Greenblatt, a professor at
Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.,

and a 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, Green-
blatt said in a telephone interview: "It's
rather difficult to have intercultural
communication if you exclude a whole
country 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 relation-
ships, 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 aca-
demics — who support peace initia-
tives. Shlesinger herself reiterated that
academics' politics have no connection
to their work. "Even if Professor Toury
and I were right-wing or we were set-
tlers, we still shouldn't be fired from an
academic journal," she said. -
Just what motivated Shlesinger's col-
league 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 cam-
paign to boycott Israeli academics.
Their campaign, which also calls for
an embargo on European funding of
Israeli scientific and cultural institu-
tions, has attracted more than 700
backers from 20 countries, including 10
Israelis, according to a list on their Web
site. Advocates of a boycott say such
actions can make a difference, with
some citing the boycotts against the for-
mer apartheid regime of South Africa.
Reactions to the academic ban
against Israelis have ranged from out-
right 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.
In response to the boycott efforts,
three professors at Hebrew University
in Jerusalem initiated a countermea-
sure, which has gained at least 13,000
signatures. ❑

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