Immigrant Anna Wexler: Unexpected symbol of Israel

26-year-old science writer represented her new country at Qatar conference after facing a storm of controversy over her presence.

American-Israeli Anna Wexler was thrilled about the opportunity to join a panel of scientists at the World Conference of Science Journalists 2011 in Doha, Qatar, held June 27-29. As the date approached, excitement turned to trepidation as she found herself the unexpected target of an academic boycott after learning that the presence of an Israeli participant was drawing protest from Arab scientists on the panel.
The 26-year-old neuroscientist, who made aliya in 2008 and currently lives in Tel Aviv, said she was invited to speak on a panel titled “Can You Hear Me Now? Writing for a Non- English Audience,” which dealt with science reporting performed by researchers in countries where English is not the local language.
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Wexler – who holds two undergraduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one in brain and cognitive science, the other dealing with both the humanities and the sciences that focus on writing – works with Israeli scientists who conduct their research in Hebrew, which she then writes about in English.
With the conference a little more than a month away, Wexler said she received an email from its co-organizer, American scientist and journalist Deborah Blum, in which “she told me there were protests against my appearance from the Arab Science Journalists Association. So she removed me from the panel that I was supposed to speak on while they tried to figure out what to do from there.”
The panel included an Egyptian moderator and participants from Pakistan and Egypt.
Wexler said she was in the dark about how the protest was playing out or who was leading it.
“It was presented to me that by appearing on a panel with someone from Israel, the other peoples’ careers could be ruined for being seen as normalizing relations with Israel.”
At this point, Wexler said she began to take stock of her options, and was “going back and forth about whether or not to publicly withdraw from the conference. I started putting together a press release because I figured I’d withdraw, but not go quietly.”
Eventually, Wexler said a compromise was reached and organizers placed her on a panel discussing science filmmaking, alongside two panelists and a moderator from the United States. Wexler said that while she has made some films, she is more a science writer than filmmaker.
Wexler said that organizers, including Blum, were highly distressed by the controversy and stuck up for her, and also feared that if she were to be banned from taking part because of her nationality, it would set a bad precedent for future conferences. She also said she was told by organizers that some participants did not personally object to appearing with an Israeli, but worried that they would be punished professionally back home.
Wexler, who grew up in New York and New Jersey, described the irony of being considered “the Israeli” in that she has never presented herself as an Israeli in her professional work and is typically considered an American by her colleagues in Israel.
“It was kind of weird because I’ve never represented Israel in a professional setting and you’re kind of used to representing yourself as an American here. This is the first time I’ve been publicly identified as an Israeli.”
Beyond the novelty of becoming an accidental symbol of Israel, finding herself unexpectedly thrust into the role of the blacklisted Israeli was both disappointing and an opportunity lost, according to Wexler.
“I was just disappointed. I was so excited that this panel would overcome politics – speaking on a panel with an Egyptian and a Pakistani – and I thought it would transcend politics and we’d talk about science and our careers, so I think I was just mostly disappointed that it wouldn’t happen.”
Wexler said she still had a great time at the conference, which provided what she said were “insane opportunities for networking” with the more than 700 attendees from all branches of the science world.
In addition, she said that when word got out at the conference about the controversy surrounding her participation, she was approached time and again by sympathetic attendees who expressed their dismay.
Wexler wasn’t the only invitee to face problems unrelated to science. Palestinian journalism professor Farid Abu Dheir of An-Najah National University in Nablus was prevented from leaving the West Bank to attend the conference. Abu Dheir told the magazine Science Insider that Israeli authorities accused him of having ties to Hamas and would not allow him to leave to attend the conference.
Thrust into the debate over academic boycotts, Wexler said the event forced her to solidify her stance on the boycott issue.
“It made me clarify my position on the academic boycott. In a sense, I do understand where the Arabs are coming from. Today, the people who support the academic boycott of Israel often bring up the academic boycott of South Africa in the 1990s, which they say was critical to ending apartheid, as their model. I don’t know how effective the academic boycott specifically was in ending apartheid – I think that’s up for debate – but it’s clear that a boycott can be a useful tool. I don’t agree with the occupation, so I understand and support the use of nonviolent tools to end it. Boycotting, say, products produced in the territories is one thing, but boycotting all academics, regardless of their personal beliefs, is another. The recent events surrounding my appearance made me realize that the academic boycott is something I do not support.”