Israeli academic Miriam Shlesinger received a devastating e-mail last May from her old British friend and editor Mona Baker.
Shlesinger, an interpreter at Bar Ilan University, was checking to see whether she should finish a writing assignment for Baker, editorial director of St. Jerome Publishing in England. St. Jerome publishes the prestigious journal The Translator, where Shlesinger sat on the editorial board.
In response, Baker told the Israeli to get lost.
"I can no longer live with the idea of cooperating with Israelis as such, unless it is explicitly in the context of campaigning for human rights in Palestine," Baker wrote.
Citing a petition started by English university professors calling for an academic boycott of Israel because of alleged atrocities committed against Palestinians, Baker dropped her bombshell: "I am therefore hoping that you will not misunderstand my request for you to resign from the Editorial Board of ‘The Translator.’ "
Shlesinger was hurt and outraged.
"Your message is very upsetting on many levels," she e-mailed back. "You choose to punish me for being an Israeli, and since it is your journal, you have that prerogative. The fact that I happen to be a staunch (and active) supporter of the Palestinian cause makes this whole discussion even more ironic."
Shlesinger refused to resign, telling Baker, "I consider this mixture of politics and academia morally insupportable in every way."
A few days later Baker dismissed Shlesinger and another Israeli professor, Gideon Toury, who had been a consulting editor of Baker’s Translation Studies Abstracts.
"I do not wish to continue an official association with any Israeli under the present circumstances," Baker wrote in an official letter of dismissal, insisting it has "nothing to do with ‘hating’ Israelis, being anti-Semitic, or even condemning you personally."
Similar incidents have been occurring around the world. Israeli academics are being evicted from organizations, Israeli scientists are denied vital information and resources, and academic groups are refusing to hold their annual conferences in Israel because of their opposition to the nation’s policies.
Dr. Andrew Marks, a Columbia University professor, said he was horrified when he learned of the discrimination against Shlesinger and other Israelis last year. At issue, he said, is the very principle of academic freedom and open communication.
In response to the boycott, Marks, a cardiologist and editor in chief of the prestigious Journal of Clinical Investigation, has launched a worldwide network of academics and scientists called International Academic Friends of Israel.
The purpose of the new not-for-profit organization is to raise funds to support academic and scientific conferences in Israel, promote networking opportunities for young Israeli researchers now denied such contacts, and publicize Israel’s scientific and academic achievements around the world.
"We created IAFI to stand for the principles of academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas," Marks said. "This is a way of saying to people who cut off Israel we’re not going to let that happen."
IAFI offered a list of "offensive" actions against Israelis:
# On April 6, 2002, the British newspaper The Guardian published an open letter signed by 120 university professors 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."
# On Dec. 16, 2002, the Administrative Council of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris adopted a motion banning all collaboration with Israeli universities. Two other French universities followed suit. (After a great public protest, the Curie University rescinded the motion.)
The University of Oslo publicly urged its faculty to protest against Israel. Some academics called for a total boycott.
The effect of the boycott has been profound, Marks said.
Indoor Biotechnologies Limited, a British biosupply company, is contemplating not providing products or information to Israeli scientists. Norwegian scientists refused to provide chemicals to Israeli genetic researchers in direct contravention of accepted scientific practices.
Dr. Yoren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University sent an article he co-authored with a Palestinian to the British journal Political Geography. The article was returned, unopened, with a note saying the publication could not accept an article from Israel.
Steps to have Israel join several large European scientific projects have been postponed until further notice: for example, accepting Israel as a member of a particle acceleration project at the CERN laboratory in Geneva.
Upon learning of Baker’s actions last year, Marks began to track and then distribute by e-mail to colleagues around the world the growing number of incidents against Israeli academics and scientists.
"It really struck a chord with me," he said in a telephone interview Monday. "It flew in the face of all the principles of the academic exchange of ideas and freedom of thought. It seemed to be the completely wrong way of attaining peace in the Middle East."
During recent speaking trips around the world, Marks said he was congratulated for his efforts. That led to forming IAFI.
As editor of an academic journal, Marks said it is incomprehensible that he would dismiss his Iraqi deputy editor just because of his nationality: even if they have diametrically opposed political views. (Baker did not respond to a request for an interview.)
As part of its mission, Marks said IAFI in October cosponsored the first international scientific meeting in Israel since the start of the second intifada in September 2000. Together with the Israeli Arteriosclerosis Society, some three dozen international speakers and more than 120 researchers attended. The second meeting will take place in October.
IAFI is also working with the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, the French Embassy in Israel and the Weizmann Institute on a conference on stem cell research scheduled for June in Rehovot, Israel. And the group has spurred a series of anti-boycott editorials in such noted scientific journals as Science and Nature.
Marks said he is particularly concerned about helping young Israeli scientists who are being shut out of global networking opportunities because of the boycott.
"The very concept of shutting off dialogue goes against the entire culture of academic exchange and could have detrimental effects on the progress of discovery if ideas are not shared," he said.
Asked if there is a precedent for such behavior against citizens of a nation, Marks said yes: "It was called Hitler. This is eerily reminiscent of the isolation and segregation of Jewish scientists that started in Germany in 1933."