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.

Charing Cross Road

This week’s New Statesman comes with a special supplement on “Ken’s London”, the usual pullout which doesn’t have a great deal of interest in it, except (this time around) for an article on the decline of the Charing Cross Road. Not having lived in London for ten years now, I haven’t really been paying attention, but the story Richard Lewis tells is a very sad one. The Charing Cross Road Bookshop closed two years ago, what used to be the excellent Waterstone’s is boarded up, the Silver Moon Bookshop is moving inside Foyle’s, moving off its old premises after being faced with a rent rise of 65% from its landlords at the Soho Housing Association which also affects some of the other specialist shops there.

In the late 1980s, the strip of bookshops along the Charing Cross Road was the middle of London for me: virtually all visits would follow the same pattern, of walking over Hungerford Bridge from Waterloo Station, heading up the Charing Cross Road, and not quite knowing where to go by the time I reached Centre Point. (Often enough to the British Museum, if it was still open by the time I got there). Collett’s, of course, is long gone and much missed: it was firebombed for stocking The Satanic Verses in 1989, and I don’t think it ever really recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. And there are too many chains towards the northern end of the road. But these recent changes seem more fundamentally threatening to the character of the place. Fleet Street stopped being Fleet Street a couple of decades ago. It will be a great shame if the Charing Cross Road follows suit.

Nuntii Latini

As everybody knows, or ought to know, the Finnish World Service has for many years now broadcast a weekly news bulletin in Latin, Nuntii Latini. Part of the reason they do this, I think, is that they are well aware that there are more Latin-speakers around the world than Finnophones, if that is a word. A snippet in the Classical Association News tells me that this excellent service can be found on the web here. Here is its coverage of recent developments in Cuba:

Parlamentum Cubanum consensu omnium legem fundamentalem ita mutandam esse censuit, ut systema socialisticum in Cuba administranda semper servaretur et illud consultum irrevocabile esset. Hoc plebiscito sancito civibus persuasum est nihil iam impedire posse, quominus patria sua etiam post obitum praesidentis Fidel Castro et successoris eius designati Raul Castro socialistica maneat.

I shall stick a link on the sidebar, to encourage you all to visit again, and again, and again.


Some good haikus on the World Cup from this week’s New Statesman competition:

Singing English fans
Embrace the art of haiku –
“Three lines on a shirt”

— R Ewing

Japan could have won
With their proven formation
Of five-seven-five

— Gordon Gwilliams

A stage for two things
That bemuse America:
Football, and the world.

— John Bevis

Autumn is early
decked in the reds and yellows
from bad referees

— Kevin Smith

Only the last contains a reference to the passing of the seasons, but they are all very fine.

Book of the Week

Andrew Sabl, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics, Princeton University Press, 2002. When I arrived at Harvard in 1995, Andy was at work on the PhD version of this project, which has now made it into book form. A very fine book it has become, too, and one which pulls off the remarkable feat of bringing the world of academic democratic theory into a dialogue with the real world of American politics without trivialising either realm of speech and action. And he’s very fond of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, which can only be a good thing. There’s an interview with the author here, if you want to find out what it’s all (mostly?) about in a relatively painless fashion.

Three Good Links

(1) The official Pierluigi Collina site (for those not paying attention, he’s the splendid – and splendidly bald – referee who officiated at England vs Argentina and the World Cup Final last month). (2) Naunihal recommends Word Perhect, a powerful new word-processing tool of sorts. (3) Michaele points us all towards the Philip Glass Engine, which looks extremely useful, although sadly I don’t yet have the right OS to make it work properly.


As he puts the finishing touches to his PhD dissertation, Raj is compiling a list of people outside the academy who seem to prefer to be called “Dr.” The list is short, but high-quality, currently consisting of Drs. Kissinger, Savimbi, Karadzic and Goebbels, with the substantially-fictitious trio of Drs. Who, Evil and No bringing up the rear.

Further examples will be gratefully received — and if you know where some of these people earned their degrees, that information would be useful, too. We think Dr. Who must have got his PhD through mail-order, and we like to think that Dr. Evil bought his for the sum of … one million pounds, but we will happily await correction.

Daniel wrote [15.7.2002]: Doubtless others have responded to Raj’s plea by mentioning the execrable “Doctor Fox”, now best known via Pop Idol but a long-term major hate figure for anyone growing up within the reach of the perfidious Capital Radio (as with so much else, the Clash got it right: “There’s a tower in the heart of London with a radio station right at the top. They don’t make the city beat, they’re making all the action stop. Capital Radio – in tune with nothing. Don’t touch that dial…”) His terrifying web page here suggests that his highest qualification is an Honours degree in business from Bath University, which must make his existence all the more annoying to Doctor Zeni Fox, Ph.D, the Director of Lay Ministry and Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University here. The webpage is headed Neil “Doctor” Fox, suggesting that he treats the prefix merely as a nickname, and is making no substantive claim re: his academic standing. But! What are we then to make of the following statement made in a live web-chat for Yahoo Ireland?

bigrennie: Are you a real doctor or did you attend the Dr Dre school of medicine?
live_chat_foxy: I am a real doctor – of business not medicine. so bigrennie, I can’t fix your piles!

Can something not be done?

By the way, *Mr.* Brooke, I feel this is an unwise subject for you to be addressing, given the rather misleading sign outside your door. Perhaps you should take heed of this.

Chris replies [15.7.2002]: Touché.

Raj chips in [15.7.2002]: Thanks for publicising and responding, respectively, to this noble distraction from my dissertation writing. I’ve written to Foxy to try to clear this all up. You can too, here. I expect a reply by return. Onward!


One of the useful things about having the Sitemeter web statistics service appended to this site is that one gets to see what people are searching for when they stumble across the Virtual Stoa. Here are some of the best:

– Big pictures of Asian elephants
– Free porn zoo sex ox
– WEEI Red Sox Radio Network
– Consignia profit declining
– Cutting off long hair
– Inability to grow beard
– Pictures of male strippers
– Argentinian jokes
– Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano

Most of them, sadly, would have been disappointed. Still, it is nice of Google to pass them along my way.

The Virtual Stoa

Apologies for absence… (ab)normal service will resume before too long…

The absence of the weblog stems from a variety of reasons: an excellent World Cup in June, which was vastly preferable to the Today Programme as Something To Wake Up To, and having a lot more work to do in the second half of term than in the first half (students taking exams, that kind of thing) being probably the two most important. General idleness shouldn’t be neglected, though. Never discount the significance of idleness as an explanation for why things (don’t) happen the way they shouldn’t.

But now the Weblog is back, and I’ve given it a cosmetic going-over, pretty much for the first time since it began. In particular, you will notice that I’ve revived The Virtual Stoa brandname, which has been dormant since the middle of 2000. People with longish memories will remember that the webpage I put up in my American incarnation was called the Virtual Stoa, for no better reason than that I was working on the Stoics and that the name entertained me;and since it still entertains me, it’s now going to be the name of the Weblog. Welcome (back) to the Virtual Stoa!

Nick wrote: Gosh! It’s changed!!