FREE Subscription to our
just enter your email address
View Previous Issues



Backlash of a boycott

By Joseph Algazy
July 30, 2002


For more than a month, universities, lecturers and students worldwide have been enjoying their summer break, but the dismissals of Prof. Gideon Toury and Dr. Miriam Shlesinger from the editorial staffs of the journals The Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts, respectively, continue to send waves throughout the European and American academic world.

The two were fired by the publisher of the two journals, Mona Baker, as part of her personal contribution to the academic boycott previously declared by European and American members of academe following recent IDF operations in Palestinian Authority areas. The boycott, and particularly the dismissals of the two Israeli researchers in the field of the science of translation, has kicked up a storm that shows no signs of abating.

Toury is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University's Unit for Culture Research and vice president of the European Society for Translation Studies. His research - including "In Search of a Theory of Translation" (1980) and "Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond" (1995) - has made him one of the leading scholars in his field.

Shlesinger is also a lecturer at Tel Aviv University's Unit for Culture Research and is active in peace and human rights organizations in Israel. In 1993-1994, she chaired Amnesty International's Israel branch, and then, from 1994 to 1997, she headed the Institut Adam pour la Paix et la Democratie and participated in numerous protest actions against Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Baker was aware of the activities of Shlesinger and Toury, and was proud that both played roles in the two journals that she publishes. So what led to her change in attitude?

In early April 2002, The Guardian of London and Liberation of Paris published a petition calling for an academic boycott against Israel. The petition was defined as a "restricted call for a moratorium on European research and academic collaboration with Israeli institutions until the Israeli government opened serious peace negotiations," in the words of its two initiators, Prof. Steven Rose of The Open University and his wife Prof. Hillary Rose of City University. The petition was signed by a few hundred lecturers and researchers worldwide, including about 10 Israelis.

The various publications emphasized the fact that Steven Rose is "a Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust."

Rose was quoted as writing: "I can no longer... cooperate with official Israeli institutions, including universities. I will attend no scientific conferences in Israel, and I will not participate as referee in hiring or promotion decisions by Israeli universities, or in the decisions of Israeli funding agencies. I will continue to collaborate with, and host, Israeli scientific colleagues on an individual basis."

Despite his undertaking to continue to cooperate with Israeli academics on a personal basis, Rose did not express reservations about the dismissals of Toury and Shlesinger.

On April 8, Baker sent an e-mail to Shlesinger, asking her to sign the petition and pass it on to as many academics as she knew. In response, she rejected Baker's request, noting that the petition "gives yet more ammunition to the tremendously strong powers here in Israel who repeat: `The world is all against us. We have to look after our own. You left-wing, dovish, pro-Palestinian academics (and others) are weakening us and should be denounced.' I do not claim that all Israeli academics and scientists think as I do, but I believe that the critical mass does. All in all, Israeli academics and the universities are a stronghold of ideological opposition."

On May 23, Baker wrote a letter to Shlesinger in which she again mentioned the academic boycott, which, she said, enjoyed "the support of many Jews and not an insignificant number of Israeli academics and non-academics for a total international boycott of Israel."

Baker continued: "However much I respect you and Gideon Toury personally, and regard you, especially, as a personal friend, I can no longer live off 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)."

Baker repeated her advice to Shlesinger: "I hope that you will eventually come to the conclusion that you too ought to be considering signing the academic boycott against Israel."

In response, Shlesinger informed Baker that she had no intention of resigning for two reasons: "(1) I see no reason whatsoever to do so, since I do not think that I have done anything that would warrant such a move; (2) I consider this mixture of politics and academia morally insupportable in every way."

On June 8, Baker asked Toury to resign, noting that she would be forced to dismiss him if he chose not to. In response, Toury told her that he saw no reason for him to resign, adding that if she intended to fire him, then "I would appreciate it if you will make it in an as public a way as possible; e.g., by announcing in the next issue of the Abstracts that you have decided to show me the door. I would appreciate it even more if the announcement made it clear that `he,' that is, I was appointed as a scholar and unappointed as an Israeli."

The declaration of the academic boycott against Israel was greeted with much opposition in Israel, although it created a far greater wave of protest abroad.

Only a handful of Israeli academics supported the boycott. One of them, Dr. Ilan Pappe of Haifa University, said that the academic boycott would not affect him as he was "not a Zionist," while Prof. Tanya Reinhart of Tel Aviv University published an article on the Internet in which she adopted the reasoning of the boycott's managers.

Prof. Baruch Kimmerling from the Department of Sociology at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, a fierce opponent of the Israeli government's occupation policy, expressed vehement opposition to the boycott, which, in his opinion, contradicts the idea of the freedom of science, the fundamental principles of scientific ethics and the open spirit of cooperation between scientists.

He rejected the argument that justified the academic boycott on Israel with the claim that a similar boycott on South Africa helped overthrow the apartheid regime there.

"The most crucial difference is that the South African academic institutions actively supported the apartheid regime and persecuted their dissident faculty members - a phenomenon unexisting in the Israeli academic institutions."

Academics in Israel, many of whom are known for their opposition to the government's policy on the Palestinian issue, determined that the boycott was too sweeping, since it was not directed at research programs that serve government policy and would primarily affect the weaker elements in the academic establishment, such as doctoral students who need references and opinions from abroad, or students requiring scholarships and grants.

Reports on the dismissals of Toury and Shlesinger prompted a wave of public letters of protest from numerous researchers in the translation field. Some members of The Translator's editorial staff, including Franz Pochhacker, assistant professor, Department of Translation and Interpreting, University of Vienna, Prof. Candace Seguinot of the University of Toronto, Prof. Doug Robinson of the University of Mississippi, Judy Wakabayashi of the University of Queensland, Australia, and Anthony Pym from Universitat Rovira I Virgili of Tarragona, Spain, even resigned from their positions at the journal.

Prominent among the many initial protests against the dismissals was that of Yves Gambier, president of the European Society for Translation Studies: "We cannot remain indifferent to the treatment of two of our own members, both of whom are responsible and important representatives of the international community of translation studies... Gideon Toury and Miriam Shlesinger in no way represent the government of Israel; in their intellectual work, they are not representatives of their country, but individuals who are known for their research, their desire to develop translation studies and to promote translation as an intercultural dialogue. It would be profoundly unjust and contrary to our ethics to cut off individuals who have chosen to work precisely to overcome attitudes of parochialism, self-isolation, chauvinism."

Another scholar, Prof. Robin Setton, from Geneva University, wrote: "There are many other examples of violent oppression with racial and cultural contempt. If we were consistent, we would spend all our time boycotting colleagues from many different countries: North and South Americans, Australians and others for their continuing treatment of the original inhabitants of those countries, Gulf nations and other Arab societies for domestic slavery, Russians for the Chechens, Indonesians for Timor, Eastern Europe for the gypsies, Turkey, Iran and Iraq for the Kurds, Britain for Ireland, and so on."

An article that appeared in both the Hebrew and English editions of Ha'aretz on June 16 and dealt with the dismissals of Toury and Shlesinger, the resignations of a number of their colleagues on the editorial boards of the two journals, and the protests of other renowned scientists prompted a new wave of expression against the dismissals and the boycott.

Few people defended the dismissals and the boycott, and space constraints did not allow us to bring the numerous reactions that continue to arrive. We will present a few examples, some of which have been printed in leading European and American newspapers.

The president of FIT, Federation Internationale des Traducteurs, Adolfo Gentile, wrote the following to Toury: "I am ashamed of being a member of an academic fraternity which has chosen this route."

Prof. Daniel Gile from the University of Lyon, France, initiated a petition that included the following statements: "Consider that taking such discriminatory measures based on nationality is a dangerous precedent, which might become a precursor to further discriminatory measures against individuals on the basis of their ethnic, religious or political identity, on the sole grounds that leaders of their ethnic group, religious group or political party have engaged in dishonorable conduct."

Following an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the subject of the dismissals of the two Israeli scholars, four leading figures from the University of Toronto sent a harsh letter of protest to Baker. The four, Michael R. Marrus, Janice Stein, Bernard Katz and Ronald J. Daniels, wrote: "This brutal act of exclusion is utterly contemptible... It will have a destructive effect not only on your journals, which have now lost all credibility for objectivity, but also on the field in which your periodicals had standing, and on scholarly activity with which your are associated. And finally, in disseminating prejudice and division, you shame the scholarly enterprise."

The director of Postgraduate Studies, School of Languages, University of Salford, England, Dr. Myriam Salama-Carr, who came to Baker's defense, wrote in one of her letters that the boycott was directed against Israeli academic institutions and their representatives, but not against Israelis per se, and that an Israeli scholar who was linked to a non-Israeli academic institution would not be affected. She added, however, that a non-Israeli scholar who represented an Israeli academic institution would be affected.

During the course of this exchange of views, primarily via e-mail correspondence, most opponents of the academic boycott against Israel and the dismissals of Toury and Shlesinger rejected suggestions to declare a counter-boycott - in other words, to cancel their subscriptions to the journals published by Baker. Most of the publisher's critics are also opposed to her being dismissed from her position as professor of translation sciences at the University of Manchester's Institute of Sciences and Technology (UMIST), as some have demanded.

UMIST's management has appointed an internal committee to probe the dismissals. After the panel submits its findings, management will decide on Baker's future.