Open Letter from Mona Baker

by Mona Baker | | 15 January 2003

From: Mona Baker []
Sent: 15 January 2003 20:00

OPEN LETTER TO DENISE NEVO (Vice-President of the Canadian Association of Translation Studies)

Dear Denise,

I hope you will forgive me for responding to the only message I have ever received from you in the form of an Open Letter. These are difficult times, and they have stretched the nerves and loyalties of everyone within our discipline and many outside it. I do hope that we can soon put this unpleasant episode behind us and proceed with our normal relations as colleagues who hold each other in mutual respect, whatever our differences of opinion. You and others in the discipline with influential institutional positions and access to the media have more than had your say publicly. Allow me to have mine before we bring this painful episode to a close. I promise never to send you another message about the Middle East after this.

As Vice President of the Canadian Association of Translation Studies (and like several other residents and chairpersons of scholarly associations, including those to whom this message is addressed) you issued a public condemnation of my position on the academic boycott of Israel, which was circulated among your members. Many of these condemnations either openly stated or implied that I am a racist and that my action is motivated by anti-Israeli or anti-Jewish feelings. For example, the statement published by the European Society for Translation Studies in the EST Newsletter dated 20 June 2002 accuses me of dismissing our two Israeli colleagues “on the pretext that they are Israelis, and in the name of an ‘academic boycott’ that confuses institutions and individuals”, which I am sure many people would agree constitutes a direct accusation of racism, even anti-semitism (‘on the pretext that they are Israelis’), and fails to acknowledge that an anti-semite would not have invited these scholars to join her editorial boards in the first place, a minor inconsistency that I will not comment on further.

At any rate, you and other colleagues in the discipline have chosen to condemn me in subtle or less subtle terms for what you have mistakenly seen as a personal attack on respected colleagues with whom we have all worked for years. I’d like to take this opportunity to both clarify my position, for the last time, and to explain why I and many other colleagues are shocked (allow me to say in fact ‘outraged’) by the position you have chosen to take.


I am aware that all forms of boycott are highly controversial, and that boycotts are blunt weapons. Valid arguments for and against the academic boycott have been circulating for some time, as we all know. Those who argue against it are not necessarily Zionist or pro-Israel, and similarly those who believe in the boycott as a tactic are not necessarily anti-Jewish or racist. Those of us who believe in the boycott argue that, in the final analysis, as Chris Webster stated in a letter to Ian Buruma in July of this year, “in the absence of moral leadership from our governments, it is up to ordinary concerned individuals and groups to take whatever action they can against injustice. Boycotts are imperfect weapons, but they are the only non-violent weapon available to us. … an academic boycott seems a very small price to pay for 50 years of ethnic cleansing and war crimes”.

If you believe in the boycott, as I do, you have to address the question of what it means to boycott Israeli academia and how this might be put into practice. This is an issue that is openly and rationally debated among many activists, including Arabs, Israelis, Jews, Americans, etc. I personally often discuss the mechanics of the boycott with Tanya Reinhart, Ilan Pappe and Rachel Giora (all Israelis) and we weigh up the pros and cons of where the line between institutions and individuals might or should be drawn, for both tactical and ethical reasons.

It follows from what I have just said that applying the boycott does not mean that all forms of dialogue between Israeli and other academics are ruled out - quite the opposite. What I and many others advocate is that we ‘penalise’ Israeli institutions by refusing to give institutional space and recognition to universities and research institutes (retaining Miriam Shlesinger on the editorial board of The Translator, in my view, means providing institutional space and institutional recognition to her university, especially if you accept that The Translator itself is an institution). At the same time, we must foster more dialogue with individual Israelis (academics and non-academics) and provide support for those who are genuinely trying to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Hence, for instance, I invited Ilan Pappe, a brilliant Israeli historian, to speak in Manchester last September and was more than happy to help provide a forum for him to engage in dialogue with many activists in Britain. Similarly, while St. Jerome Publishing refuses to supply Israeli institutions with books, it continues to supply individuals in Israel, including Miriam, with any publication they care to order, knowing of course that individuals can order books and pass them on to their libraries. The idea is not to penalize individual academics or students (wherever this can be avoided) but to express outrage at the Israeli government and the Israeli civil society which elects and supports it, at the racist ideology of Zionism, and the inherently genocidal concept of an all-Jewish state in Palestine. The idea, in other words, is to send a strong message to Israelis and the entire world that, however low our governments and the institutions that supposedly represent us are prepared to sink, “we will not do business as usual with a racist state”, as Miriam Reik from New York explains in a letter published in The Guardian on 23 July 2002. You may well disagree with this position, but I hope you will agree that in a free and civilized society you do not persecute individuals, and you do not attempt to ruin their careers, because they hold political or other beliefs that are different from yours.

I am familiar with all the arguments that have been used to discredit the boycott in general and my position in particular, including issues of academic freedom for individual Israeli scholars, inconsistency in applying the boycott to Israel but not to China or Egypt, etc. etc.. I will only quote you a couple of responses for now but would be happy to debate any aspect of the boycott rationally in future, though I note from your answer that you are already 'sick and tired' of the Middle East question.

On the question of ‘inconsistency’, I personally agree with Miriam Reik's response to Geoffrey Alderman: “Egypt may have human rights problems, but Mr. Alderman, it’s a matter of scale: taking a pencil home from the office is not the same as bank robbery, although the ‘principle’ may be the same” ('We will not do business as usual with a racist state’, Letter to The Guardian, 23 July 2002). And as for the question of academic freedom, let me quote you an explanation I fully agree with: “We all have laudable principles. We cherish them. But when they inevitably clash, we rely on our implicit ‘heirarchy of principles’. Personally, I believe in and cherish academic freedom and debate (as a means to an end), particularly with those holding opposing views. But the principles of opposing/exposing ‘acquiescence to moral hypocrisy’ at individual and institutional levels and ‘individual culpability through silence’ are much higher up my pecking order. Academic freedom demands speaking out. Unused it is useless. It is a means to achieve these higher and more noble objectives” (Ali Nasralla, Manchester Business School, personal communication).


I now wish to explain what continues to amaze me most about your position and the positions of others who have felt it right to condemn what is in the overall scheme of things a very modest action taken by one individual and affecting two Israelis (and admittedly appearing to flout a number of principles that many of us hold dear). Just to put things in context, remember that however much you may disapprove of my particular action I have not even attempted to discredit any Israeli colleagues, let alone shut down whole universities, aid and abet ethnic cleansing, or rob thousands of young people from their right to education.

You, and many others, including leading politicians such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw, have chosen to publicly condemn an individual (who happens to be of Egyptian origin) – I’m surprised George Bush hasn’t had something to say publicly about this too, especially since he seems particularly keen to demonize Arabs, even more so than he does the numerous other ethnic, religious and national groups he has decided to pick on. Most of you never bothered to discuss the issue directly with me before denouncing me publicly. The few among you who did contact me chose to disregard my response because it did not provide them with the ammunition they wanted to use against me. For example, in response to a query from the Modern Languages Association, I emailed the following explanation on 29 June: “In answer to your specific question, let me assure you that I am boycotting only representatives of Israeli institutions, and not Israelis as such. In practice, this means that (for example) a French or American academic currently working at an Israeli university and explicitly affiliating themselves to that university would be subject to the same boycott. By contrast, an Israeli academic working, say, in the States or Finland and affiliating themselves with a non-Israeli university would not be subject to the boycott. You should also be aware that many Jews all over the world are campaigning strongly against Israeli policies". And yet, in his open letter to me which was published in various leading newspapers in the US and Britain, including The Sunday Telegraph on 7 July 2002, Stephen Greenblat chose to ignore my response and to condemn me publicly in the most Zionist newspaper in the country, knowing full well that this would intensify the Zionist campaign that had already started by mid-June but was clearly not intense enough for his liking.

Last month I sent you and the other colleagues on this list a message documenting the immense difficulties being experienced by peace groups in the States attempting to get books through to Palestinian colleagues, and said: “In view of the fact that you have recently used your institutional positions or media contacts to express outrage at the academic boycott of Israel and felt obliged to defend the academic freedom of two Israeli scholars so strongly, I wonder whether you might consider using the same facilities to defend the academic freedom (and very survival) of our colleagues in Beir Zeit … Whatever your views on the boycott, or my implementation of it, I am assuming that you ‘mean well’ and are genuine in expressing positions you do believe in. But if this is not to be interpreted as racism, perhaps you could consider being similarly vocal in decrying the discrimination against our academic colleagues in Palestine. I would be very grateful - and so would many others - if you could use your positions and contacts to bring this situation to the attention of your members and constituencies, even if you can’t bring yourselves to issue public condemnations of these horrific acts”.

Having experienced the amazing indifference among large sectors of our academic community to the fate of huge numbers of fellow Palestinian academics with no names, no faces, and presumably no rights, I was not particularly surprised to receive no response from any of you. But on Monday 13 January, I received two responses, and this is what has finally prompted me to write this long open letter.

The first response came from Lucy Procter, editor of Student Direct (the student magazine in Manchester, read of course by my own students, among others). Lucy Procter had published a particularly inflammatory and misleading article in the September issue of the magazine (timed to appear in the first week of the new academic year). The title of the article, which carried a large picture of me (presumably for identification purposes) was ‘Racism Enquiry launched into UMIST Lecturer Controversy’. Myriam Salama-Carr of the University of Salford sent the following note to Ms. Procter on 3 October 2002: “Dear Lucy Proctor, I am extremely concerned by the heading of your article: Racism Enquiry launched into UMIST Lecturer Controversy, which is at best misleading and at worst inflammatory. The enquiry you refer to is, to my knowledge, into the results of Prof Baker's actions, it is not a racism issue. When I rang Student Direct Salford this morning to clarify this, I was told that 'you got the story from Manchester Student Direct'. It is not for me to advise on editorial matters, but I feel that facts ought to have been checked first, certainly by Manchester, but also by anyone who was passing on the 'information'. These matters are far too sensitive for careless use of words to be allowed. I look forward to your feedback.”

Not surprisingly, she received no response from Ms. Procter, nor were any corrections or apologies published in subsequent issues of the magazine. But on the 13th of January I received the following from Ms. Procter concerning a circular about the situation in Palestine: “Thank you for your email, and for bringing this issue to our attention. We would of course be very interested in investigated [sic] the situation you refer to. Please could you email us back to arrange a suitable time to discuss it? Our first issue is out on Monday 3rd Feb so we would need to speak to you and others involved sometime in the next two weeks. Alternatively, phone the Student Direct office on 0161 275 2944 and ask for Lucy Proctor. I wrote the last article after speaking to Miriam Schlesinger and so would be very keen to follow it up. My mobile is 07815 050 243. I hope to see you soon, Lucy Proctor, News Editor”

Maybe I’ve grown too cynical, but I find it difficult to believe that someone who publishes such a viscious article could genuinely be interested in relaying my point of view. More likely, and knowing as I do now how the Zionist machine works, this is yet another attempt to publish a manipulative and distorted version of my views in order to stir people against me (especially my own and other students in the Manchester area).

The second message I received yesterday came from you, shortly after you received my circular about the CAPJO statement. I had been sending you the occasional circular on what is happening in the Middle East since you issued your condemnation of my position, thinking (perhaps naively) that if you were interested enough to issue this condemnation you might want to know more about the context in which the individual you saw fit to attack publicly has made her controversial decision. I was clearly wrong, as your brief message indicates: “Mona, I am happy to receive your messages that deal with translation studies issues, but I am sick and tired of receiving anything that has to do with the middle-east. Please refrain from sending me any message of that nature from now on. Thanks. Denise”

I am sincerely sorry that you are sick and tired of all this and promise not to send you further messages about the Middle East. But before I take you out of my address book, allow me to humbly suggest that in future you might not rush into condemning individuals for taking a stand you do not understand or one that is motivated by events that do not interest you. Otherwise, might I and others not be justified in suspecting you and other colleagues on this list of at best hypocrisy and at worst racism? How else does one explain all this outrage over two individuals (whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation) when not a single one of the institutions or individuals to whom this letter is addressed has had anything to say at all about the destruction and closure of Palestinian universities and the killing and imprisonment of thousands of students and staff?

Best regards,
Mona Baker

Copies to:

(1) Yves Gambier, President of the European Society for Translation Studies
(2) Adolfo Gentile, Ex-President of FIT (International Federation of Translation Studies)
(3) Marian Schwartz, President of ALTA (American Literary Translators Association)
(4) Esther Allen, Chair of PEN Translation Committee
(5) Beatriz Zeller, President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada
(6) Ros Schwartz, Chair of CEATL
(7) Susan Bassnett, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, UK and author of the inflammatory article ‘How Can Intellectuals Be So Unreasonable’, The Independent, 4 July 2002
(8) Stephen Greenblat, President of the Modern Languages Association

Posted by: Mona Baker on Jan 15, 03 | 11:41 am