Observations on l’Affaire Mona Baker

As Junius and other thoughtful commentators have observed, it’s important to distinguish what Mona Baker has done from what the petitions she signed called for. There are at least two relevant petitions floating around. One was first published as a letter to the Guardian, and said this:

Despite widespread international condemnation for its policy of violent repression against the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government appears impervious to moral appeals from world leaders. The major potential source of effective criticism, the United States, seems reluctant to act. However there are ways of exerting pressure from within Europe. Odd though it may appear, many national and European cultural and research institutions, including especially those funded from the EU and the European Science Foundation, regard Israel as a European state for the purposes of awarding grants and contracts. (No other Middle Eastern state is so regarded). Would it not therefore be timely if at both national and European level a moratorium was called upon any further such support unless and until Israel abide by UN resolutions and open serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League.

The other, advocated by a group called the Coordination des Scientifiques pour une Paix Juste au Proche-Orient, says this:

“The campaign against the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority launched at the end of March 2002 by the government headed by Ariel Sharon, in defiance of United Nations Resolutions and the Geneva Conventions, has led to a military reoccupation of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and to a dramatic increase in human rights violations.� Under these circumstances, I can no longer in good conscience continue to 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.”

Mona Baker is a signatory to both of these documents, but neither calls for anything like the action she has taken.She has defended her action by saying (as reported in the Guardian) that, “This is my interpretation of the boycott statement that I’ve signed and I’ve tried to make that clear but it doesn’t seem to be getting through. I am not actually boycotting Israelis, I am boycotting Israeli institutions”. But this claim is flatly contradicted by a sentence in the letter she is reported in the same piece as having written to Professor Gideon Toury, one of the two Israeli academics concerned: “I do not wish to continue an official association with any Israeli under the present circumstances”. [Emphasis added – and no mention of Israeli institutions here].

It is a great shame, then, that instead of considering the uses and disadvantages of the arguments of these two petitions, endorsed by hundreds of academics, the clumsy media spotlight has been resolutely focused on an outlying action which contradicts the spirit of the documents in whose name it was taken and which provides plenty of grist to the mill of rightist critics.

On the broader question of academic ties to Israel, it’s worth reading two contrasting left views, from the United States and from Israel itself. First, Noam Chomsky’s short response, explaining his refusal to sign one of these petitions. (He had earlier signed the Harvard-MIT Divestment Petition).

I understand and sympathize with the feelings behind this proposal, but am skeptical about it, for a number of reasons. One is that our prime concern should be ourselves: it’s always easy to blame others; harder, and far more important, to look into the mirror. That includes Europe too, though the issue is particularly stark here, in the present instance. The petition states that “the US seems reluctant to act and continues to fund Israel.” That’s quite an understatement. Israel acts within bounds set by Washington, and the US has been providing the decisive military, diplomatic, economic and doctrinal support for the crimes that are condemned. The US does not accept the basic UN resolutions, these and others, and has vetoed the most important ones, which, if implemented, could have largely settled many of the prime issues long ago. That continues; there has been no break. Furthermore, what is said about Israeli intellectuals holds in spades for their US counterparts, who are far more complicit in crimes, even in this case, not to speak of innumerable others. It seems a bit odd for us to be on a high horse about that. Breaking contact with Israeli academics, artists, writers, journalists,… means breaking contact with many people who have played an honorable and courageous role well beyond what can be found here, and are a much more substantial element within their own society.

I also think the emphasis is misplaced. The immediate goal should, I think, be to compel the US government to stop providing the means for enhancing violence and repression, and to stop preventing diplomatic moves towards the international consensus on a political settlement that the US has been blocking, unilaterally, for a quarter-century. That requires a preliminary struggle: to break the doctrinal stranglehold that prevents serious discussion of these issues within the mainstream of opinion, a very broad spectrum, reaching to left-liberal sectors. A call for suspension of arms transfers to Israel would be a natural first step, following the course of Germany, which has already undertaken it. As long as we are not able to achieve simple goals like that within our own society — even to bring them to the arena of general discussion — I’m very reluctant to call for breaking relations with people who, as a category, are considerably more advanced than we are.

Second, Tanya Reinhart’s essay, too long to be reproduced in this space, but which can be found here.

Dave wrote [13.7.2002]: I remember that one of the Guardian letters noted that the press had concentrated on activity which hurt people in Israel, but that the majority of boycott activity was likely to hurt people here.

“Most worryingly, by focusing on the actions of one signatory (and without my going into the pros and cons of the particular case) you appear to argue the rejection or acceptance of a boycott on the basis of a sample of one. This means that you erase the ethical actions of all the others. Some of these mostly “hurt” the signatory, such as declining to address an EC conference because of the participation of a formal Israeli delegation, or declining to join a research collaboration with long-valued Israeli colleagues.”

I haven’t seen much evidence anywhere of the latter — except for a story told by a novelist I know. He was offered a deal for his books to be published in Israel, but turned it down, for reasons of the boycott. I guess he must have lost out financially as a result. Through friends, I suggested that he should accept the Israeli offer, but insist that his books were simultaneously published in a cheap, Arabic edition. The pure boycott was probably simpler.

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