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Woman who sacked Israelis fears for job

By Charlotte Edwardes
(Additional reporting by Tony Freinberg)
Daily Telegraph (UK)
14 July 2002


The British professor who last week admitted sacking two scholars simply because they were Israeli now fears dismissal from her university post for her action.

Prof Mona Baker, the director of the centre for translation and intercultural studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), dismissed the Israeli academics from the boards of her two independently-owned journals after signing an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

The decision prompted a wave of international condemnation and Prof Baker told The Telegraph yesterday: "I will almost certainly get the sack from UMIST now." Her action has been denounced both by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University.

The authorities at UMIST are believed to have privately urged Prof Baker to reinstate the Israelis or leave her university post. The university stated: "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." It said a "wide-ranging" inquiry would determine "any further necessary action".

Prof Dawkins, who has removed his support from the 700-strong petition for a boycott of Israel, said that Prof Baker's actions "leave me with a nasty taste in my mouth".

He urged Prof Baker to change her mind. "As someone who has publicly changed his mind and not suffered any odium, my advice to her would be to admit she has made a mistake."

Other signatories of the petition also expressed their regret at her action and claimed that she had "discredited" the campaign. Colin Blakemore, a professor of physiology at Oxford University, said that her decision had "reduced this symbolic action to one of recrimination against individuals".

Patrick Bateson, the provost of King's College, Cambridge, said: "[Prof Baker] decided to take a unilateral action, not thinking very clearly about what the original boycott was about. Her understanding of its principles is muddled."

Mr Straw said: "I think it is disgraceful. Would [the journal] have done this to someone who was Arab or black? They should be reinstated immediately."

Prof Baker's husband, Ken, said last night that his wife was seeking legal advice. "This is none of UMIST's business. They are getting involved now only because of pressure from outside."


Mona is a fine person, but she made a wrong move

Daily Telegraph (UK)
14 July 2002


Last week a British university don sparked an international row after sacking two scholars from her academic journals for being Israeli. For the first time, Charlotte Edwardes hears both sides of the story

Ken Baker is sitting, head in hands, behind his desk at St Jerome Publishing, a small office tacked on to the side of his detached house in a leafy suburb in Manchester.

"It's not fair, we are just ordinary people," he says, the strain showing. "Neither of us has any real political allegiances, we have no religion, no creed, nothing at all. We just wanted to do something to highlight the atrocities in Palestine. Instead, my wife will probably lose her job and the media is vilifying us."

His wife is Mona Baker, the director of the Centre for Translation of Intercultural Studies at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, who dismissed two Israeli scholars - Professor Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University and Dr Miriam Shlesinger of Bar Ilan University - from the boards of the academic journals.

It was this action that has propelled her from an unassuming position in the little-known field of translation studies to the centre of a storm of controversy.

Last week The Sunday Telegraph disclosed extracts of an open letter from Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard professor and president of the Modern Languages Association of America, condemning the sackings, and published a leading article entitled "The Silence of The Dons", which challenged the academic world to fight the expulsions.

The dismissals, in early June, elicited little publicity or protest in British academia, aside from two small reports in obscure education supplements. They were subsequently reported by the BBC on radio and television, by The New York Times, and across the media spectrum. Many commentators have also condemned the British academic institutions for their seemingly complicit silence.

While Prof Baker is still reeling from the response to her actions - she has received more than 15,000 e-mails and letters, and faces an internal inquiry at UMIST - she nonetheless remains resolute: "I just hope that the publicity eventually draws attention to the cause," she told me flatly. She refuses to be drawn further, claiming that UMIST has gagged her during its inquiry.

UMIST has issued a statement saying that the inquiry will be "wide-ranging". They are believed, however, to have privately issued her with an ultimatum: reinstate the academics or leave the university.

The handsome Cairo-born academic, who doesn't like to reveal her age, has now become elusive, hiding upstairs in her immaculately tidy four-bedroom house, spending her time reading and circulating e-mails about her predicament. Outside, the couple's silver estate car remains unused in the drive. Today, Mr Baker, a stocky, plain-speaking, former car dealer from Somerset, is speaking on the couple's behalf.

What is striking about the Bakers is their genuine - if embarrassingly naive - surprise that their actions, executed with cold logic, could stir up so much emotion and hatred.

"We didn't intend it to happen this way," says Mr Baker. "We thought we were making a token gesture. We were joining a boycott along with everyone else." His wife, he says, was reading The Guardian over breakfast one morning in April when she spotted an item about an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The petition was launched by Steven Rose, a Jewish professor at the Open University. Prof Baker added her signature to the list, which included Harold Pinter, the playwright, and Oxford professors Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist (who has withdrawn his backing), and Colin Blakemore, a physiologist.

"But it wasn't just Steven Rose's petition that sparked us off," says Mr Baker. "We joined a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London in March and started to gather information about the conflict. we had been dimly aware of the situation and although we felt sad about the fate of the Palestinians, we hadn't actually done anything."

The crunch, he says, was footage they watched about the April invasion of the Jenin refugee camp, considered a haven for suicide bombers by the Israelis: "We saw this film in Cairo. It showed horrific pictures of dead children." His wife was so disturbed by the footage that she fled to the bathroom and vomited.

Later, Prof Baker decided that merely adding her name to 700 others was simply not enough: to carry the spirit of the campaign to its logical conclusion, she felt that she should act practically. She wrote an e-mail to Prof Toury on June 8, saying: "Dear Gideon, I have been agonising for weeks over an important decision: to ask you and Miriam to resign from the boards of The Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts. I have already asked Miriam and she refused. I have 'unappointed' her, as she puts it, and if you decide to do the same I will have to officially unappoint you, too. I do not expect you to feel happy about this and I very much regret hurting your feelings and Miriam's. My decision is political, not personal. . . I do not wish to continue an official association with any Israeli under the present circumstances."

Bewildered that he was being excluded because of his nationality, Prof Toury wrote back: "I would appreciate it if the announcement made it clear that 'he' (that is, I) was appointed as a scholar and unappointed as an Israeli."

Political tactics aside, what is bizarre about the Bakers' decision is that the two Israelis were their good friends. Dr Shlesinger, 55, formerly the chairman of the Israeli branch of Amnesty International, has been a guest at their home many times. They first met at a conference in Denmark in 1990 and by 1995 they were close enough to discuss personal concerns such as Prof Baker's yearning to have children.

Dr Shlesinger wrote her PhD in Prof Baker's office, "with her books, articles and support". Mr Baker reflects fondly: "She would take us to the pictures and to dinner. We went on picnics and trips together, as friends do." He adds: "She introduced me to bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon - absolutely incredible."

Dr Shlesinger, whose husband is a Holocaust survivor, has openly opposed certain Israeli government policies. She recently signed a petition protesting against the enforced closure of the Palestinian universities. That same Israeli policy enraged the Bakers - so much so that it contributed to their decision to sack Dr Shlesinger. More poignantly, Dr Shlesinger, who was born in America, has suffered first-hand in the conflict: her son-in-law died after being shot in the face by a Hamas gunman. Prof Baker, who knew of her friend's loss, has stuck to her original refrain: "It is not Israelis per se but the Israeli state that I deplore."

Mr Baker sips his tea and echoes his wife's argument: "It's not an attack on individuals, but because they are attached to the institutions. We don't see how you can separate an individual from an institution. If we could get that whole situation sorted out with the Israelis, we would put them back in their jobs." Asked how he would feel if he were in the shoes of Dr Shlesinger and Prof Toury, Mr Baker says: "You can look at it in a number of different ways and Miriam has taken it in a bad way."

The Bakers accept that they might not just do irreparable damage to their friendships, but also to his £100,000-a-year publishing business, which produces 12 to 15 books a year and acts as a distributor for other texts in the field. The journals, which were lanched in 1995, are sold biannually on subscription and the total print-run is 90 copies. Articles are concerned with the study of translation, and according to the company, "cross-cultural communication". Their audience and contributors are academics and students. Mr Baker does not deny that losing Miriam, who has worked for the company for the past three years, will be damaging to the quality of the publication. "She was extremely useful to the journal and it will suffer in her absence. We may also lose business, but I am prepared to pay that price. At stages in your life you feel very strongly about something and you have to act."

Dr Shlesinger refuses to criticise the Bakers outright, instead condemning their actions as, "counter-productive, discriminatory, and based on misinformation".

"They were wonderful, warm and tolerant. I liked them a lot," she says from her flat near Tel Aviv. "They were very hospitable. We didn't discuss Israeli politics that much, it wasn't a good subject. I cherished our friendship. I didn't want to drag Israeli politics into it.

"Mona is a very fine person, whom I like and admire very much, but she made a wrong move here. I don't think they ever meant it to snowball this monumentally."

Prof Baker has never visited Israel. Dr Shlesinger says: "Mona would never come here. It is a very different thing to comment from afar and to actually live here."

Dr Schlesinger's son-in-law, Eliyahu Levine, was 25 when he was shot dead. "He was killed by Hamas terrorists," she says. "He was not a settler, but he was driving home from a meeting in Ofra, near Ramallah. He was a craftsman and he was buying materials - silver, I think. They shot him at close range. He left my daughter Bet-Ami and my granddaughter, who both still live in Israel."

Mr Baker met Mona in Cairo where he lived for two years running a motor company for a Kuwaiti family. The couple moved to Yemen before returning to England, where they were married in a civil ceremony in 1977. Prof Baker, who read English literature at university in Cairo, studied further at Birmingham University before moving to UMIST seven years ago.

The Bakers are distraught at receiving thousands of vitriolic missives by e-mail. Holding one up Mr Baker said: "It's unbelievable what they are saying about her." The offending correspondence reads: "Arab dog, Palestinian whore."

When I tell Dr Shlesinger, she is dismayed, describing the letters as "filth". She adds cautiously: "Without belittling my condemnation of this kind of hate mail, by drawing attention to it, Mona puts herself in the position of being a victim. However, she isn't only a victim of this terrible campaign, she is one of the protagonists. It is about how this started in the first place."