British ban would target the 'good guys,' too
Prof. Miriam Shlesinger, one of the first Israelis to be openly boycotted, has a message for U.K. academics.
Prof. Miriam Shlesinger, the translation scholar from Bar-Ilan University who was fired from the board of a British journal for being Israeli, sees herself as one of the lucky ones. "At least I had the luxury of knowing why I was being boycotted," she says, recalling the e-mail she received in May 2002 from erstwhile friend Prof. Mona Baker, asking her to resign from the editorial board of a journal Baker publishes.
"With me, it was clear, direct and specific, but it can be very difficult to see the effects of the boycott. Very often it's an undercurrent, a hidden dynamic that is difficult to point to. If certain academics become less friendly, less interested or stop engaging with you, it takes a while to realize that the other kids on the block aren't playing with you. For younger academics who want to enter the world of academic discourse and have yet to establish themselves, a boycott can be truly damaging."
Indeed, the "silent" boycott phenomenon concerns a growing number of Israeli academics who are sometimes unable to distinguish, for example, whether an article has been rejected for publication on political grounds or for purely academic reasons. This week Shlesinger, who was interviewed before boarding a plane to London, was off to the U.K. to fight efforts to instate what has been described as the most broad-reaching academic boycott to date.
On May 29, over 120,000 members of the University and College Union will be asked to vote on a proposed boycott of Israeli universities at its annual congress in Bournemouth. The new union is a merger of the Association of University Teachers and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education; both have voted to boycott Israelis in the past.
Shlesinger and four other Israeli academics was set to meet with union members in London, Brighton and Manchester to persuade them to oppose the boycott of Israeli universities. "We'll show them who we are in the flesh," Shlesinger said in her office at Bar-Ilan, where she chairs the Deparment of Translation and Interpreting Studies.
While Shlesinger, who has translated into English books by A.B. Yehoshua, Etgar Keret and Sayed Kashua, says she is one of the lucky ones, but the fallout from Baker's 2002 e-mail sounds far from enviable. Shlesinger describes the international translation studies field as an intimate community of scholars, with Israelis in a central role. She says that Baker's ousting of her - as well as colleague Prof. Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University - created a "terrible rift" in the discipline. While several colleagues immediately resigned from journals linked to Baker's publishing house, considered a leader in its field, others readily took their place - "which is also a statement," Shlesinger says. "People suddenly felt they had to take sides. They had no choice. Generally it created a lot of awkwardness about how to react. Communication, understanding and international collaboration is what this field is all about. That's why it's all the more ironic to experience such a rift."
Shlesinger recalls that following her ousting, she spent the next six weeks glued to her inbox, answering thousands of e-mails ranging from "vehement attacks to warmly supportive messages."
Although she has a public record of left-wing activism, including a stint as chair of the Israel Section of Amnesty International, Shlesinger balked at one question she was repeatedly asked: What were her views on the conflict?
"I was immediately thrown into this situation where people were using me as a sounding board for how they felt about Israel and asking me how I felt politically. I don't think the boycott is justified by how I feel or what Israel does or does not do. I was taken on [at Baker's journal] as a translation scholar for whom apparently she has some respect. Everything else is irrelevant. People kept saying to me, you of all people, how could she possibly boycott you? But my political identity as an Israeli - which happens to be on the left - has nothing to do with it."
She adds: "I understand why it's mentioned because it makes the boycott seem more absurd when the "good guys" are included in the "bad guys" category, but really it's irrelevant. Ever since third grade, I thought collective punishment was immoral and this is essentially that."
Shlesinger planned to tell the British academics she meets that Israeli academics are in the forefront of those trying to improve the situation in the region, and that the boycott will only weaken them.
"The boycott will serve absolutely no constructive purpose. It saves no one and only creates a great deal of unhappiness, confusion and divisiveness," Shlesinger says, adding: "If you're going to boycott on political grounds, why only Israel? I wonder how these Britons who vehemently oppose Britain's involvement in Iraq would react to being boycotted for being British."
Shlesinger emphasizes that academic freedom applies everywhere. She is critical of Israeli academia for failing to "do enough" when Bir Zeit University in the West Bank was closed for months, adding that she has fought for Palestinian students in Gaza to enroll in an occupational therapy program in Bethlehem. "Being branded for belonging to a particular country is wrong. Just as I fought against it when I was in Amnesty International, I will fight against it when it's about me," she says.
The latest move is just the last in a string of calls to boycott Israel in the U.K.. In March, 130 British doctors called for a boycott of the Israeli Medical Association and its expulsion from the World Medical Association, while the National Union of Journalists voted to boycott Israeli goods to protest last year's Lebanon war and Israeli "aggression" in the territories.
The understanding that the boycott may affect Israeli academia at large is taking time to filter through here. "Initially many shrugged it off as a bunch of lunatics in the U.K.," Shlesinger says. "Now people are taking it seriously."
One example is the recent establishment of an inter-university committee to fight for academic freedom, under the auspices of the International Advisory Board for Academic Freedom at Bar-Ilan University. It works with groups with similar goals in the U.S. and the U.K., including the London-based Fair Play Campaign Group, which paid for this week's trip by Shlesinger and her colleagues. Unlike some Israeli boycott opponents, Shlesinger is reluctant to accuse those who support the boycott of anti-Semitism.
"It's hard to say where anti-Semitism ends and anti-Semitism begins and where personal hangups begin and end. I think some of the people who harbor anti-Semitic sentiments aren't even aware of it, but I accept that [accusations of anti-Semitism] can be used to silence critics of Israel. [Claims of] anti-Semitism should be reserved for the most blatant cases."
But she has little patience for those who use the involvement of Jews or Israelis in the boycott as an argument to support it. "How many times can you say Ilan Pappe [of Haifa University] and maybe three others in one breath? It's one of those obnoxious arguments. You can find three people to support anything."
Shlesinger, who was born in Miami but lived in Israel between the ages of six and 12 before returning here permanently at the age of 17, found her way to the field of translation when a music theory teacher asked her to translate his book. In 1973, she enrolled in Bar-Ilan's fledging translation department, the only such department in Israel.
She met her husband, Moshe Shlesinger, a blind and disabled IDF veteran, after taking a job reading to him in English while he studied for his M.A. in economics. Her brother, Aryeh Geiger, is the founder and principal of the Reut School in Jerusalem and her mother, Edyth Geiger, is well known in Safed for turning her home into a free English-language lending library.
Shlesinger says she found it "very hard emotionally" to accept her dismissal by Baker. "When a person with whom I had a very warm relationship decided to see my nationality as more important than me personally, it was a blow."