The Tip of the Volcano?

by Sara Bedein and Gila Ansell Brauner

The Fire Sparks Anew

In late Spring 2002, Dr Miriam Schlesinger, an eminent academic, translator and interpreter, was unfairly dismissed from an honorary editorial position on "The Translator", an independent academic Translation journal. This measure was taken on the grounds that she is Israeli and involved in the Israeli academic world, and was at the sole decision of the Editor, Professor Mona Baker of UMIST (University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology, UK). Another eminent Israeli Linguistics theoretician, Professor GideonToury, was dismissed from a different journal edited by Professor Baker.

The incident did not spark any great debate, despite Jewish and academic protests, but it can be interpreted as representative of a new reality, or perhaps the forerunner of a new wave of anti-Israel sentiment being translated into spheres of action. This was the time when the myth of the Jenin massacres was being disseminated widely and the powers-that-be, together with the public, did not question anyone who joined the bandwagon. As time passes, however, it appears that there is a groundswell movement behind this action which looks set to hit many university campuses worldwide as soon as the academic year begins. Not only will students be subjected to pressures, vilification and even violence: there are and will be expressions of this in the faculty.

Furthermore, this is only one level of this phenomenon and it should be examined in the overall context. There are various expressions of boycott initiatives across the normal interactive spheres of Israel's lifeline to the world. Firstly, there are a few official, government embargos and sanctions; secondly, there are the unofficial and quasi-official initiatives to boycott Israel in multiple spheres of research, academia and international cooperation; finally, come the economic boycotts, many of which have connections to powerful political figures in certain countries.

The main concerns are:

The pervasive nature of the underlying messages;
The overall impact this will have on various circles of influence;
How the sum of these factors affects Israel's economic and diplomatic stability.


Sources in the Israeli government have acknowledged that the US and British governments joined in an official ban on sales to Israel of any defense equipment that the IDF might use in Judea, Samaria or Gaza. The British embargo began in October 2000. The same Israeli government sources said that the equipment that the US and Britain had been supplying would be supplied by other, unnamed countries. The British embargo reached the point of the absurd when it was interpreted to include sales of special ammunition for Israeli marksmen competing in international sports events.

The only other western country to operate an official embargo against Israel is Germany; it operates in the heavy industry sector and was more recently extended to arms sales (see Article #2).

Academic Freedom and Professional Exchange

On April 6, The Guardian published an open letter signed by 120 university professors, including 90 from Britain, calling for a moratorium on cultural and research links with Israel at a European or national level, "unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans..."

This petition produced the following responses:

a) More than 5,000 European, American and Israeli scholars signed a protest letter against the British anti-Israel boycott, and the collection of signatories appears with the letter on the Hebrew University website.

"Whereas we hold diverse political views with respect to the past and current policies of the Israeli government, and whereas we recognize the right of individuals and concerned citizens in Israel and abroad to openly express their opinions regarding the tragic and devastating events of recent months, we are united in our condemnation of this unprecedented call by European scholars to suspend European-Israeli academic and cultural ties,"  the letter said.

b) The European Commission subsequently issued a Press release (April 25th) saying that, "the European Commission is not in favour of a policy of sanctions against the parties to the conflict , but rather advocates a continuous dialogue with them which is the best way to bring them back to negotiations." Philippe Busquin, the EU Commissioner for Research continues, "I draw your attention to the very positive effects played by the scientific co-operation conducted at the level of the European Union between European, Israeli and Palestinian institutions and scientists...."

c) The Simon Wiesenthal Center has also played an extremely active role in protest and calls for solidarity, issuing its own petition and stated that,

"... We believe that this call is immoral, dangerous and misguided, and indirectly encourages the terrorist murderers in their deadly deeds.

"The government of Israel has the right and the duty to protect its citizens against terror. We sincerely hope that upon further reflection these scientists will understand the dangers of their request. We also call upon all our colleagues to express their support of the people of Israel in these trying times by fostering and developing scientific ties with their colleagues from the State of Israel".

During the same period as this counter-boycott activity was enlisting thousands of academics in protest, the Board of Directors of the organization for professors and teachers in higher education in the United Kingdom decided unanimously to call for a more sweeping boycott. They appealed to all British institutions of higher education to weigh - with the goal of severing - any future academic connection with Israel, insisting that such relations be resumed only after a full withdrawal of all the Israeli forces, the beginning of negotiations to implement UN resolutions, and the promise of full access for all Palestinians to institutions of higher learning.

Thus, the original UK academic petition to boycott Israeli academia and research (April 2002) has now grown to 700 private signatories, while both the British Association of University Teachers and NATFE, the lecturers' union, have followed suit at the organizational level. However, more recently, the UK National Union of Students has strongly condemned this as "an abuse of academic freedom" and a "racist" act.

The academic boycott is also extremely active in France and is expected to reach even higher levels of campaigning outside the virtual arena. The outlook is that tension on UK and US university campuses will rise sharply from the beginning of the upcoming academic year, while allowing courses under the guise of "Middle East Studies" to go unchallenged in the US when they are openly presenting only one-sided perspectives, and even diffusing anti-Israel propaganda.

Parallel International Phenomena

  • The Israel Medical Association (IMA) received threats of sanctions from international and European health organizations, which criticized the accessibility of medical treatment for Palestinians injured during Israel's military operations.
    On May 10, the World Medical Association discussed the possibility of suspending Israel's membership. As a result, the IMA drafted guidelines for the provision of medical care, calling on the IDF to ensure the continuation of medical services in the territories alongside the army's security requirements. Following extensive international campaigning by organizations like the Wiesenthal Center and other bodies, the WMA rejected the call for Israel's supsension from the Association.
  • As allegations of massacre in Jenin hit the headlines, the World Cup was just getting into gear; boycott initiatives took a new tack"
    FIFA, the Federation International de Football Association, discussed and rejected on May 3 the demand by Arab countries to suspend Israel from world soccer. Israel Football Association chairman Gavri Levi traveled to Sweden to argue that FIFA statutes clearly state: "There shall be no discrimination against a country or an individual for reasons of race, religion or politics." According to an UEFA official , (Ha'aretz newspaper) UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, made vehement objections in advance about this move to FIFA in Israel's defense, and their intervention was influential.
  • Since early 2002, "home events" in international football and basketball matches are not being played in Israel, because visiting groups are concerned about the security situation. These considerations are largely understood by Israel and have nothing to do with boycott, but this situation is hitting Israeli sport in terms of equity, support and revenue from and costs to the participating public, as well as impacting on Israel's level of engagement in international competitive events.

Why Protests Go Unnoticed

It would appear that the various anti-boycott counter-petitions (separately, by internationally renowned academics and members of the public, via the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the US) have made little impact on the groundswell of petitions with their British signatories, or anti-Israel action in UK academic unions; nor has this protest at injustice been digested and supported by prestigious faculties in the UK or the USA.

  • Targeting: One reason may be the placing of pro-Israel petitions primarily on the Internet as a statement, without the initiators/signatories of this UK-based call for a Moratorium on academic and research ties with Israel being the direct recipients of the counter-protest. The Wiesenthal Center petition, on the other hand, was sent to any instance of importance (The European Commission), where it was highly effective, but not to the originators of the problem, nor to government, or the media. In general, media publicity outside the Jewish and academic communities was not sollicited.
    Indeed, a great deal could be learned from the Scientists for Soviet Jewry solidarity campaign of the 1970s and 1980s, about how to address and distribute protest where it can make a difference - namely, both down the line to those who are discriminating and inciting discrimination, as well as towards political figures, legislators and leading personalities.
  • Profile: The dismissal of Dr Schlesinger from "The Translator" in May 2002 by UMIST Professor Mona Baker also indicates that the incident and its academic context have not been presented in the right profile. Extensive detail has been available: the issue simply has not become sufficiently important or relevant in the media, because it is not being addressed correctly by those who are protesting.
    Supplementary details are important, for example:
    • Newspaper reports confirm that Prof. Baker, who has known Dr Schlesinger since before the latter's doctoral studies at UMIST, was not prepared to take into account Dr Schlesinger's well-known, left-wing political views and activism for human rights on behalf of the Palestinians. This indicates that the dismissal is purely on grounds of prejudice
    • Discrimination against Schlesinger for being an Israeli, which constitutes an act to limit academic freedom and exchange in a liberal world. Dr Schlesinger is not making a public statement at present.
    • One journalist somewhat later disclosed that Baker was born and educated in Egypt, and had sent the dismissal letter from a temporary location in Bahrein - and suggested that her motives were looking increasingly political. At the same time as this came to light, Baker made some public statements on the incident - about not wishing to cooperate with Israelis, except on issues of Palestinian human rights, and terming Israel "Nazi", while simultaneously claiming that she herself was being victimized. In this context, such utterances read suspiciously like an action replay of the atrocious antisemitic and anti-Israel draft resolutions and slogans of the Durban Conference (2001) whose title and goals were ostensibly designated as "the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination".
  • Policy: The further implications are being played down by fellow academics and Jewish communities, possibly in the hope of an improvement in the situation; their impact is not being correctly assessed in terms of policy.


The broadest expression of the isolation of the Israeli scientific community is the refusal of researchers to come to Israel, for reasons of personal security, so that conferences and exchanges do not take place. Of course, conferences are not only in the scientific and academic domains, but cover the broader areas of professional and inter-community contacts.

"Whereas in the past Israel held many international congresses, says Gideon Rivlin, the chair of Kenes International, the principal organizer of such congresses, today there are no longer any international congresses in Israel." While occasionally one can find a few scientists who are willing to take what they perceive as a risk and come to Israel, such visits cannot be compared to the impact of an international congress."Until 2004, all congresses in Israel have been canceled,"adds Rivlin.

While no-one doubts the serious security considerations, it is believed that political peer pressure is also implicated in this decision.

"Many of them avoid saying that that's [ed: security] the reason, but in personal conversations it turns out that this is the case," says Prof. Hermona Soreq, a molecular biologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is involved in organizing many conferences.

The UMIST delegation did not arrive for its scheduled lectures at the International Conference on Ancient DNA, which took place in Tel Aviv in late July 2002.

Neurology researcher Prof. Idan Segev, also from HU, says that scientists tend to refuse to come not only to scientific congresses, but for joint research projects, too.

This comes full circle back to Israelis being avoided or sanctioned abroad. Israeli researchers are concerned that their articles could be turned down for publication on grounds of their nationality and professional affiliation.

None of the above isolation initiatives is taking place in a vacuum, but the international and domestic implications for Israel are accentuated by their frequency, their rapid dissemination via Internet and media, as well as by the obfuscation of some of the figures and motives behind them. For the present, the UK picture looks gloomy, while trend in various trans-national organizations appears to be in Israel's favor, but it could go either way.

More of the overall picture appears in the second article, Bubbling Under: From Economics to International Cooperation.


Points to Ponder

1. Is the overall picture really a cause for concern, or is it just a flash in the pan?

2. Are these messages to sanction visible across the board, or only in specific circles - to judge from your own environment?

3. What measures have been recommended or tried to counter this movement in your own environment - and how do you rate their success?

4. How can this phenomenon be addressed effectively?





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13 Aug 2007 / 29 Av 5767 0