by Lucy Proctor | Sudent Direct | 30 September 2002
UMIST has launched an enquiry into the actions of lecturer Mona Baker following her decision over the summer to dismiss two Israeli academics from her translations journal. The action was taken after the lecturer re-ignited the Palestine-Israel rift by axing writers Miriam Schlesinger and Gideon Toury from her journal as part of an academic boycott against Israeli universities.
The boycott, started last year with a letter by Jewish academic Professor Steven Rose in the Guardian had been signed by over 750 members of the academic community and has many supporters. However, concerns have been raised over Mona Baker's motives, with many objecting to the possible racist element behind the decision
Miriam Schlesinger, senior lecturer at Bar Ilan University in Israel, was available for interview this week in London, and told Student Direct that she feels she has been treated unfairly. She too received a copy of the letter, but refused to sign it, giving her reasons. In early June she was contacted by Mona Baker and asked to resign from a translation journal published by UMIST. When she declined she was dismissed. She feels that her dismissal arises from her status as an Israeli, and not just because she works for an Israeli university: "Her initial first email said `I can no longer live with the idea of cooperating with Israelis," so initially it was as if its because I'm an Israeli as such. Later on this was changed somewhat and her claim was that I represent an Israeli institution."
The decision has caused outrage amongst the Jewish community, with Daniel Rose of the Union of Jewish Students arguing that "to exclude people based on their nationality is abhorrent and nothing short of racism, and should be universally condemned". Mandy Telford, NUS President, branded Baker's actions "a form of discrimination".
Launching its enquiry, UMIST released a statement making its position on the matter very clear. "A UMIST academic serves on the Board of the Journal of Translation Studies. But the Journal is not a UMIST publication nor is it run by an organisation based at UMIST. The Journal is entirely separate and independent. The decision taken by the Journal on this particular matter does not reflect UMIST policy in any way."
UMIST adds that had the decision been theirs to make the outcome would have been very different: "If the academics had been working on UMIST journals, rather than independent and privately owned journals, they would never have been removed. UMIST has always had a clear position on this issue: we strongly believe that discrimination is unacceptable, that the Israeli academics should not have been removed and that this decision was wrong."
Mona Baker declined to speak to Student Direct, but has written a general statement defending her motives and citing her reasons for taking part in the boycott. "The decision to boycott the two Israeli academics in question is not being taken in isolation. Boycotts of Israeli institutions have been launched, by some courageous and clear-sighted Israeli academics amongst others, and are supported by academic associations (including NAFTHE, AUT, Norwegian academic associations, etc). I am not sure that the distinction between 'individual' and 'state' is possible any longer in this case. We are all free to support the boycott, to ignore it, or even to opt to actively oppose it. But my decision is logical if you choose the first option."
Denying any anti-Semitic prejudice, Mona Baker commented: "I am not and never have boycotted Israeli or any other `individuals'. The two Israeli academics in question have been personal friends for many years (and I am most definitely not anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish or even anti-Israeli as such). In other words, I am boycotting Israeli institutions through their representatives, rather than Israelis as nationals. I don't know how else you can boycott an institution."
Mona Baker's case for dismissing Miriam Schlesinger in a show of support towards the Palestinian cause is not aided by Ms Schlesinger's commitment to the peace process and her record as a human rights activist. A prominent member of the Israel section of Amnesty International and a well-known objector to the Sharon government, Ms Schlesinger is currently involved in a small women's movement in Israel collecting money for Palestinian school children under the slogan of `Give me a childhood' Give me peace.'
Student Direct asked Miriam Schlesinger about her refusal to follow many other Israeli and Jewish academics in joining the boycott, who see anything that puts pressure on the Sharon government as legitimate. Ms Schlesinger questions the effectiveness of such action: "Its been four months since this began and in my opinion, in those four months, not a single Palestinian child has been helped in any way by this boycott, not a single improvement has been made in the lot of the Palestinians, not a single Israeli policy has been changed. If anything at all it only causes people to become more entrenched in their previous positions."
Mona Baker's supporters compare this boycott to that of universities in apartheid South Africa and are calling for similar support. In July the Association of the Palestinian Community and the Manchester Palestine Solidarity Campaign held a picket at the main entrance to UMIST to support her, trying to rally backing from UMIST and British Muslims.
They suggest that Israeli universities, following the example set by South African Universities, are indirectly supporting the actions of the Sharon government. Mona Baker's statement supports their accusations, claiming that "Israeli academia, by its own admission, has no record of even condemning acts of violence and oppression committed against their fellow academics in Palestinian institutions over the past 35 years." However, the likening of the situation in Israel to apartheid South Africa is questionable. Miriam Schlesinger points to subtle differences that make the comparison superficial and simplistic: " Universities and institutions in South Africa were pro-apartheid, they were the perpetrators of Apartheid. Also, I don't think that boycott was such that you would boycott a South African university professor as such."
When asked if she felt she was being racially discriminated against, Miriam Schlesinger was reluctant to use the heavily charged word, but added: "Whenever you discriminate against an individual, not because of what that person is or not because of what an individual says or believes or writes or thinks, but because that person happens to belong to e certain group or nationality, there is a certain racist element to it."