An Attempt to Isolate Israeli Scholars Draws Fire

From the archive (legacy material)

BETH MCMURTRIE | The Chronicle of Higher Education | 26 July 2002

The dismissal of two Israeli scholars from the boards of two British journals of translation studies has created a intercontinental academic rift that grows wider by the day. At issue is whether Israel deserves to be ostracized for its treatment of Palestinians and, if so, whether Israeli academics should be held accountable for the policies of their government. More than 1,000 professors think so. They have signed a petition, started this year, calling for a European boycott of research and cultural links with Israel to protest the "violent repression against the Palestinian people." A similar petition, asking academics to cut ties with Israeli scientific institutions, including universities, has drawn hundreds more signatures. While the petitions have caused a stir, the boycott didn't gain widespread attention until one supporter, Mona Baker, a professor of translation studies at the University of Manchester's Institute of Science and Technology, forced out two Israelis who sat on the editorial or advisory boards of two journals she owns. That one of the Israelis is a peace activist did not deter her. "I am not actually boycotting Israelis," she told The Guardian, a British newspaper, this month. "I am boycotting Israeli institutions." Ms. Baker's university says it will investigate the matter, but notes that the journals are privately owned. A university statement says that "we strongly believe that discrimination is unacceptable, that the Israeli academics should not have been removed, and that this decision was wrong." Ms. Baker's move, publicized in The Chronicle and several other newspapers, prompted hundreds of academics from around the world to sign one or more competing petitions circulated by professors at American universities and elsewhere. Various journals are weighing in with editorials opposing the boycott, and scholarly societies are entering the fray as well. The responses often criticize academics who would penalize Israeli scholars simply because of their citizenship. Such a position, the counterpetitions argue, promotes a one-sided view of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. What's more, the opponents argue, if applied generally, boycotts of all academics in a country, regardless of their personal politics, would create a snarl of actions against any government considered to be violating human rights, and would make global academic cooperation impossible. A disproportionate number of boycott supporters are in Britain and France, while a majority of the opponents are American, although the division by no means neatly matches national borders. Both sides, however, tend to blame biased news-media reports in other countries for influencing their opponents' views. One antiboycott petition, begun by Michael Aizenman, a physics professor at Princeton University, has drawn more than 1,800 signatures. It says that "academic contacts deserve to be cultivated, as they are a proven path both to better science and to better understanding between nations." Mr. Aizenman, who has dual citizenship in Israel and the United States, says, "I would not have expected those ideas to be taken seriously a year ago, and now they seem to be proper materials for debate." 'Immoral' and 'Misguided' Another antiboycott petition, started by Leonid Ryzhik, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, has drawn more than 2,500 signatures. It declares that "the government of Israel has the right and the duty to protect its citizens against terror" and deems the boycott "immoral, dangerous, and misguided." "The firing of these two Israelis is a signal event in this whole discussion," says Sylvain Cappell, a professor of mathematics at New York University, who signed the Ryzhik petition. "It really brought home to people who hadn't thought this through what the agenda is." Although some boycott supporters withdrew their names in the wake of Ms. Baker's action, many remain supportive of the effort. "It has reminded me how strong are the attachments of some of my colleagues -- those very critical of Mona Baker -- to what I'd consider incomplete versions of academic freedom," says Ken Jones, a lecturer in education at Keele University, in England, in an e-mail interview. "They have a fine concern for individual rights of free association, while tending to overlook more general suppressions of that right." Joel Beinin, a history professor at Stanford University and president of the Middle East Studies Association, finds both sides misguided. Mr. Beinin, who has family members living in Israel, has long objected to its treatment of Palestinians and says he has rarely collaborated with Israeli scholars or universities because "I wanted to keep a distance from the occupation." But he objects to the boycotts, he says, because they don't allow for consideration of an individual Israeli's actions. At the same time, though, he finds the antiboycott arguments to be "typical expressions of Israeli propaganda" and full of "self-righteous nonsense." It's entirely appropriate, he says, to refuse to work with an individual who supports policies that one opposes. "I think it is extremely naive to argue that scholarship has nothing to do with politics. That is taking scholarly activity outside the realm of normal social interaction and giving it some special status, which I think it does not deserve." Some boycott supporters have compared their efforts to those against apartheid-era South Africa, in which financial and political sanctions helped lead to the dismantling of its racist system. Colin J. Bundy, director of the University of London's School of African and Oriental Studies, and a former vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa, says he supported the academic boycotts against South Africa because they made exceptions for opponents of apartheid. Kate Galbraith contributed to this article from England.