Hawking in Palestine

Central Milan, April 2013.

There’s only one word that can raise the blood pressure of apologists for the Israeli occupation. That word is “boycott.” Their hysterical reaction to Stephen Hawking’s decision to pull out of a Jerusalem conference is a perfect example.

Indeed, the saga of Hawking’s decision shines a very unfavorable light on those who respond to boycotts irrationally.

The news of the cancellation of Hawking’s appearance at the annual Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow caused quite a stir when it first appeared. But then, Tim Holt, spokesman for Cambridge University, announced that Hawking had pulled out not in protest, but due to health concerns. That would have been understandable for a 71-year old man with the physical difficulties the physicist suffers from, but Hawking clarified the matter.

The physicist surprised everyone by correcting the Cambridge spokesperson, forcing him to issue a new statement confirming that Hawking had pulled out in acknowledgment of the Palestinian call for boycotting Israel, and on the advice of his Palestinian colleagues. The response was as deplorable as it was predictable.

One extremist Israeli professor suggested that “…the people of Israel send Hawking for a free trip on the Achille Lauro!!” (This was a ship which was hijacked by terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, in retaliation for an Israeli attack on the PLO headquarters in Tunisia which was even criticized by the Reagan Administration. During the hijacking, the PLF terrorists killed and threw overboard an elderly Jewish-American man confined to a wheelchair.)

The neoconservative American magazine Commentary implied that President Obama should strip Hawking of his Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to the physicist in 2009 due to Hawking’s “…affinity with political movements that are antithetical to the very idea of freedom.”  And, of course, there was cruder stuff on Twitter and Facebook, too. Hawking was getting the Jimmy Carter treatment.

What underlies this apoplectic response? From Israel’s rightwing supporters, it’s just business as usual. Bullying and crude language are their favorite tools, and they have a lot of experience using them against liberal public figures in the Anglo world. But what about more moderate voices, like Ha’aretz’s Carlo Strenger?

The case Strenger makes rests on several very common points: 1. There are worse human rights violations than Israel’s, so they must be boycotted first. 2. Villains in Hamas and Hezbollah are anti-Semitic and, in Strenger’s words, “…call … (and) threaten to obliterate Israel.”  And 3. Academics in Israel are largely liberal and therefore boycotting them and their institutions is counter-productive.

Aside from these points, the one that is made with overwhelming shrillness and frequency is that since the call for boycotting Israel includes a demand to recognize the Palestinian Right of Return, it is really an attempt to destroy Israel by non-violent means. Let’s look at each of these points.

It is true, of course, that, for example, the human rights violations in Syria these days dwarf the occupation. At any given time, you can find something somewhere that fits that description, be it in Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia… a depressingly long list. But one has nothing to do with the other. One could have made the same argument against the United Farm Workers’ boycott of grapes in the 1960s. More to the point, it would have had equal validity in arguing against the boycott against South Africa. From 1948-1994, apartheid was the legal structure of South Africa, and any number of atrocities were going on during that period. Was it inappropriate to boycott South Africa on that basis? Few would argue that.

Gaza is everwhere. Milan, April 6th, 2013.
Gaza is everwhere. Milan, April 6th.

But most of all, this argument minimizes the crimes of the occupation. That’s easily done with the reports we get from Syria every day, but it is an immoral case to make. It is no different from minimizing beating someone to within an inch of his life by comparing the act to those of a serial killer. The specific human rights violations of the Israeli occupation that shows no sign of ending are well-documented and grim. They certainly merit a boycott.

It is true, of course, that Hamas and Hezbollah have undertaken violence against Israeli civilians, which is a war crime. While neither organization, nor any combination of those groups constitute a credible threat to Israel’s existence, they have caused significant bloodshed and are anti-Semitic. But does that justify Israel’s occupation, and its concomitant denial of civil and human rights to millions of innocent Palestinians? If the answer is no, as Carlo Strenger seems to think, doesn’t Israel’s 46 years of denying those rights merit a response beyond pleading a case for justice, which has proven ineffective?

Strenger’s last and best argument applies only to an academic boycott. It’s worth pointing out that the event at which Hawking was slated to speak was not an academic one. 972’s Noam Sheizaf explains:  “The Presidential Conference is not an academic event: it’s an annual celebration of the Israeli business, political and military elites, whose purpose is unclear at best, and which has little importance in Israeli life (it didn’t exist until five years ago). The pro-occupation Right has a heavy presence at the conference – or at least it felt that way last year, when I attended.”

While I find some merit to the idea that an academic boycott is counter-productive, it is also true that universities are not merely repositories of teachers and thinkers, but are intrinsic parts of their society, frequently working closely with the government and the military. One may argue the merits of an academic boycott, but the notion that the academy is somehow isolated from the government and military around it is naïve to say the least. And Strenger might want to consider the value of academic freedom in Israel in light of an incident last December when Prime Minister Netanyahu barred an Israeli professor from participating in a science symposium in Germany because Rivka Feldhay, who is also a human rights activist, “tarnishes the name of Israeli soldiers and pilots”. It’s pretty hard to argue that a boycott must exclude academia in a country which does this to its own citizens, and this is only one example.

What of the call for return of refugees? If anyone wants to see this conflict resolved, they must understand that, just as Israeli Jews are not going to abandon Zionism, neither will the Palestinians ever abandon the refugees. It is inconceivable that a Palestinian call will not include the refugees. And this call does not demand implementation of the right of return; it says that Israel “…refus(es) to accept the inalienable rights of the refugees and displaced stipulated in and protected by international law.” That is a demand for a resolution of the issue, not an endorsement of any specific resolution.

I understand very well how afraid Israeli Jews are of this point. However, those Israelis who want to end the occupation, and those of us abroad, who want to see peace, need to recognize that this must be on the table and that the Palestinians are going to demand the right of return. Whatever resolution is reached to end the occupation will not hold unless the refugees are given some measure of justice. There are ways to do this, consistent with international law, that maintains a Jewish homeland (as opposed to an ethnocratic Jewish state that reduces non-Jews to second class status,) as I have explored in the past. But it can’t be ignored and it is unreasonable to expect a unified Palestinian movement to exist without this plank.

Ultimately, one can support or oppose a boycott. But the BDS movement was conceived as a way to advance the Palestinian cause without physical violence. There are good reasons, not based in a lack of understanding of the conflict, much less in anti-Semitism, why people support the boycott. Do pundits like Strenger really want to send the message that a non-violent method is unacceptable? What options does that leave for the Palestinians, now that they have irrefutable proof that the Israeli government is farther away than ever from a willingness to end the occupation and the United States is more feeble and feckless than ever? Oppose the boycott if you wish, but trying to make it illegitimate is self-defeating and inspires more violence.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.


  1. I think it is high time that Israel persued the peace process as a top priority-not building further settlements.. the boycott is just a means to get there

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