12 May 2013


This article is from Antony Loewenstein's blog and is dated 9 May 2013:

Watch furore over Stephen Hawking back BDS and realise its morality

Let the pub­lic de­bate thrive. Fol­low­ing Stephen Hawk­ing’s de­ci­sion to sup­port the aca­d­e­mic boy­cott of Is­rael, in a highly prin­ci­pled stand, the issue has caused glob­ally gnash­ing of teeth and re­flec­tion. In short, most Zion­ists just can’t un­der­stand why any­body would pick on poor, lit­tle, oc­cu­py­ing Is­rael. Some rel­e­vant in­sights below.

The Guardian:

The cel­e­brated physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing be­came em­broiled in a deep­en­ing furore today over his de­ci­sion to boy­cott a pres­ti­gious con­fer­ence in Is­rael in protest over the state’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Pales­tine.

Hawk­ing, a world-renowned sci­en­tist and best­selling au­thor who has had motor neu­rone dis­ease for 50 years, can­celled his ap­pear­ance at the high-pro­file Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence, which is per­son­ally spon­sored by Is­rael’s pres­i­dent, Shi­mon Peres, after a bar­rage of ap­peals from Pales­tin­ian aca­d­e­mics.

The move, de­nounced by promi­nent Is­raelis and wel­comed by pro-Pales­tin­ian cam­paign­ers, en­tan­gled Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity – Hawk­ing’s aca­d­e­mic base since 1975 – which ini­tially claimed the sci­en­tist’s with­drawal was on med­ical grounds, be­fore con­ced­ing a po­lit­i­cal mo­ti­va­tion.

The uni­ver­sity’s volte-face came after the Guardian pre­sented it with the text of a let­ter sent from Hawk­ing to the or­gan­is­ers of the high-pro­file con­fer­ence in Jerusalem, clearly stat­ing that he was with­draw­ing from the con­fer­ence in order to re­spect the call for a boy­cott by Pales­tin­ian aca­d­e­mics.

The full text of the let­ter, dated 3 May, said: “I ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion to the Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence with the in­ten­tion that this would not only allow me to ex­press my opin­ion on the prospects for a peace set­tle­ment but also be­cause it would allow me to lec­ture on the West Bank. How­ever, I have re­ceived a num­ber of emails from Pales­tin­ian aca­d­e­mics. They are unan­i­mous that I should re­spect the boy­cott. In view of this, I must with­draw from the con­fer­ence. Had I at­tended, I would have stated my opin­ion that the pol­icy of the pre­sent Is­raeli gov­ern­ment is likely to lead to dis­as­ter.”

Hawk­ing’s de­ci­sion to throw his weight be­hind the aca­d­e­mic boy­cott of Is­rael met with an angry re­sponse from the or­gan­is­ers of the Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence, an an­nual event hosted by Is­raeli pres­i­dent Shi­mon Peres.

“The aca­d­e­mic boy­cott against Is­rael is in our view out­ra­geous and im­proper, cer­tainly for some­one for whom the spirit of lib­erty lies at the basis of his human and aca­d­e­mic mis­sion,” said con­fer­ence chair­man Is­rael Mai­mon. “Is­rael is a democ­racy in which all in­di­vid­u­als are free to ex­press their opin­ions, what­ever they may be. The im­po­si­tion of a boy­cott is in­com­pat­i­ble with open, de­mo­c­ra­tic di­a­logue.”

Daniel Taub, the Is­raeli am­bas­sador to Lon­don, said: “It is a great shame that Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing has with­drawn from the pres­i­dent’s con­fer­ence … Rather than cav­ing into pres­sure from po­lit­i­cal ex­trem­ists, ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in such events is a far more con­struc­tive way to pro­mote progress and peace.”

The Wolf Foun­da­tion, which awarded Hawk­ing the Wolf prize in physics in 1988, said it was “sad to learn that some­one of Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing’s stand­ing chose to ca­pit­u­late to ir­rel­e­vant pres­sures and will re­frain from vis­it­ing Is­rael”.

But Pales­tini­ans wel­comed Hawk­ing’s de­ci­sion. “Pales­tini­ans deeply ap­pre­ci­ate Stephen Hawk­ing’s sup­port for an aca­d­e­mic boy­cott of Is­rael,” said Omar Bargh­outi, a found­ing mem­ber of the Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment and Sanc­tions move­ment. “We think this will rekin­dle the kind of in­ter­est among in­ter­na­tional aca­d­e­mics in aca­d­e­mic boy­cotts that was pre­sent in the strug­gle against apartheid in South Africa.”

Pales­tin­ian aca­d­e­mics sent a bar­rage of let­ters to Hawk­ing in re­cent weeks in an at­tempt to per­suade him to join the boy­cott move­ment.

Samia al-Bot­meh, of Birzeit Uni­ver­sity in the West Bank, said: “We tried to com­mu­ni­cate two points to him. First, that Is­rael is a colo­nial en­tity that in­volves vi­o­la­tions of the rights of the Pales­tini­ans, in­clud­ing aca­d­e­mic free­dom, and then ask­ing him to stand in sol­i­dar­ity with Pales­tin­ian aca­d­e­mic col­leagues who have called for sol­i­dar­ity from in­ter­na­tional aca­d­e­mics in the form of boy­cotting Is­raeli acad­e­mia and aca­d­e­mic in­sti­tu­tions.”

Hawk­ing’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from the con­fer­ence was “fan­tas­tic”, said Bot­meh. “I think it’s won­der­ful that he has acted on moral grounds. That’s very eth­i­cal and very im­por­tant for us as Pales­tini­ans to know and un­der­stand that there are prin­ci­pled col­leagues in the world who are will­ing to take a stand in sol­i­dar­ity with an oc­cu­pied peo­ple.”

Com­ments on so­cial media in Is­rael were over­whelm­ingly op­posed to Hawk­ing’s move, with a small num­ber en­gag­ing in per­sonal abuse over his phys­i­cal con­di­tion. A mi­nor­ity of com­men­ta­tors sup­ported his stance on Is­rael’s 46-year oc­cu­pa­tion of thePales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries.

In ad­di­tion to the let­ter sent by Hawk­ing to the con­fer­ence or­gan­is­ers, a state­ment in his name was sent to the British Com­mit­tee for the Uni­ver­si­ties in Pales­tine, con­firm­ing his with­drawal from the con­fer­ence for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. The word­ing was ap­proved by Hawk­ing’s per­sonal as­sis­tant after con­sul­ta­tion with Tim Holt, the act­ing di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity.

On Wednes­day morn­ing, fol­low­ing the Guardian’s rev­e­la­tion that Hawk­ing was boy­cotting the Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence, Holt is­sued a state­ment say­ing: “Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing will not be at­tend­ing the con­fer­ence in Is­rael in June for health rea­sons – his doc­tors have ad­vised against him fly­ing.”

How­ever, a later state­ment said: “We have now re­ceived con­fir­ma­tion from Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing’s of­fice that a let­ter was sent on Fri­day to the Is­raeli pres­i­dent’s of­fice re­gard­ing his de­ci­sion not to at­tend the Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence, based on ad­vice from Pales­tin­ian aca­d­e­mics that he should re­spect the boy­cott.”

In a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with the Guardian, Holt of­fered “my apolo­gies for the con­fu­sion”.

This year’s con­fer­ence is ex­pected to be at­tended by 5,000 peo­ple from around the world, in­clud­ing busi­ness lead­ers, aca­d­e­mics, artists and for­mer heads of state. For­mer US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, for­mer UK prime min­is­ter Tony Blair, for­mer Russ­ian pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev, Prince Al­bert of Monaco and Bar­bra Streisand have ac­cepted in­vi­ta­tions, ac­cord­ing to or­gan­is­ers.

A highly un­sci­en­tific Guardian on­line poll finds huge sup­port for Hawk­ing’s stand. In Haaretz, note the ar­gu­ment put for­ward by an aca­d­e­mic, typ­i­cal of many Zion­ists. Rather than ad­dress­ing the rea­sons Is­rael is in­creas­ingly iso­lated, let’s focus on stronger ties to the out­side world. Fail:

The media re­ports Wednes­day that Pro­fes­sor Stephen Hawk­ing would not be at­tend­ing the Pres­i­dent’s Con­fer­ence in Is­rael next month prompted many to ac­cuse the world-renowned sci­en­tist of anti-Semi­tism.

Hawk­ing, how­ever, has al­ready vis­ited Is­rael four times, in­clud­ing the last time, in 2006, at the in­vi­ta­tion of the British Em­bassy. Dur­ing that trip, he vis­ited uni­ver­si­ties in Is­rael and the Pales­tin­ian Au­thor­ity and said he hoped to meet Is­raeli and Pales­tin­ian sci­en­tists.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port in the Guardian, ever since Hawk­ing’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the con­fer­ence was made known some four weeks ago, he has been bom­barded with count­less emails and let­ters from Britain and other places in the world, call­ing on him to re­voke his de­ci­sion.

In view of Hawk­ing’s pre­vi­ous vis­its to Is­rael, how­ever, it would be dif­fi­cult to brand him anti-Se­mitic. Per­haps he just wanted to avoid the headache in­volved in any visit to Is­rael by a well-known sci­en­tist or per­former.

Among those fight­ing to thwart the re­peated at­tempts, es­pe­cially in Britain, to boy­cott uni­ver­si­ties in Is­rael is David New­man, Dean of the Fac­ulty of Hu­man­i­ties and So­cial Sci­ences at Ben-Gu­rion Uni­ver­sity of the Negev. New­man says that the ma­jor­ity of the Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment and Sanc­tions move­ment was once lim­ited to mere procla­ma­tions by var­i­ous or­ga­ni­za­tions, but that this has been chang­ing in re­cent years. Now, he says, boy­cott ef­forts are car­ried out pri­mar­ily by de­ter­mined ac­tivists who bom­bard pub­lic fig­ures plan­ning to come to Is­rael with an on­slaught emails and faxes. This is prob­a­bly what hap­pened to Hawk­ing. If so, it means Is­rael may not be a pariah yet, but it is cer­tainly no longer a place every­one trav­els to gladly.

Ac­cord­ing to New­man, one of the founders of Ben-Gu­rion Uni­ver­sity’s pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment de­part­ment, which has been ac­cused by local Mc­Carthy­ists of hav­ing dan­ger­ous left­ist ten­den­cies, the an­swer to these at­tempts to im­pose an aca­d­e­mic boy­cott on Is­rael is to strengthen the co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Is­raeli and in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tists.

Acts such as up­grad­ing the sta­tus of the Ariel Uni­ver­sity Cen­ter, and threats like the one by the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Coun­cil to shut down Ben-Gu­rion’s pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment de­part­ment these hardly con­tribute to fur­ther­ing said co­op­er­a­tion.

In 972 mag­a­zine, al­ways in­ter­est­ing Is­raeli writer Noam Sheizaf ar­gues that Is­raelis can’t be sur­prised by the grow­ing move to­wards boy­cotts and should stop play­ing the vic­tim:

The British Guardian on Wednes­day re­ported that Prof. Stephen Hawk­ing hascan­celled his ap­pear­ance at the fifth Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence due to take place this June, in protest of Is­rael’s treat­ment of the Pales­tini­ans. The re­port was later con­firmed by Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity. A spokeper­son for the Jerusalem-based con­fer­ence called Hawk­ing’s de­ci­sion “out­ra­geous and im­proper.”

One of Haaretz’s lead­ing lefty colum­nists, Carlo Strenger, wrote an open let­ter to Hawk­ing echo­ing these feel­ings. After ex­press­ing pride in his own op­po­si­tion to the oc­cu­pa­tion, Strenger ac­cuses Hawk­ing of hypocrisy and ap­ply­ing a dou­ble stan­dard; he claims that Is­rael’s human rights vi­o­la­tions are “neg­li­gi­ble” com­pared to those of other coun­tries in the world, and notes that the Is­raeli acad­e­mia is for the most part lib­eral and there­fore can’t be blamed for the oc­cu­pa­tion.

I would like to re­spond to some of the points he makes, since they rep­re­sent a larger prob­lem with the Is­raeli left.


While Hawk­ing re­sponded to the call for aca­d­e­mic boy­cott, it should be noted that 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. I will get back to the no­tion of “the lib­eral acad­e­mia” and the Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence later.

Per­son­ally, I think we should put the “dou­ble stan­dards” line of de­fense to rest, since it’s sim­ply an ex­cuse against any form of ac­tion. The geno­cide in Cam­bo­dia was tak­ing place at the same time as the boy­cott ef­fort against South Africa. Ac­cord­ing to Prof. Strenger’s logic, anti-Apartheid ac­tivists were guilty of dou­ble stan­dards; they should have con­cen­trated their ef­forts on many other, and “much worse” regimes.

The no­tion ac­cord­ing to which the hor­rors in Syria or Dar­fur make end­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion a less wor­thy cause rep­re­sents the worst kind of moral rel­a­tivism, es­pe­cially when it’s being voiced by mem­bers of the oc­cu­py­ing so­ci­ety.

I’m also not sure what makes Is­raeli human rights vi­o­la­tions “neg­li­gi­ble” com­pared to those of other coun­tries. I cer­tainly do not think that killing hun­dreds of civil­ians in one month dur­ing Cast Lead was “neg­li­gi­ble,” but the oc­cu­pa­tion goes way be­yond the num­ber of corpses it leaves be­hind – it has a lot to do with the pres­sure on the daily lives of all Pales­tini­ans, and with the fact that it’s gone on for so long, af­fect­ing peo­ple through their en­tire lives (I wrote on the need to see be­yond death sta­tis­tics here). Plus, there is some­thing about the fact that it’s an Is­raeli who is de­ter­min­ing that those human rights vi­o­la­tions are “neg­li­gi­ble,” which makes me un­easy – just as we don’t want to hear the Chi­nese using the same term when dis­cussing Tibet.

I will not go into all of Strenger’s ra­tio­nal­iza­tions for the oc­cu­pa­tion – his claims that the Pales­tini­ans an­swered Is­rael’s gen­er­ous peace of­fers with the sec­ond In­tifada; that as long as Hamas is in power there is no­body to talk to, that Is­rael is fight­ing for its sur­vival against an ex­is­ten­tial threat, and so on. I don’t think that a fact-based his­tor­i­cal analy­sis sup­ports any of these ideas, but Strenger is en­ti­tled to his view. If you think the oc­cu­pa­tion is jus­ti­fied, or at least in­evitable, you ob­vi­ously see any ac­tion against it as il­le­git­i­mate and un­called for.

Yet the thing that made Prof. Strenger jump is not “any ac­tion” but rather some­thing very spe­cific – the aca­d­e­mic boy­cott. Per­son­ally, I think that his text mostly por­trays a self-per­cep­tion of in­no­cence. Is­rael, ac­cord­ing to Strenger, doesn’t de­serve to be boy­cotted and the “lib­eral aca­d­e­mics” – like him­self – specif­i­cally, don’t de­serve it be­cause they “op­pose the oc­cu­pa­tion.”

At this point in time, I think it’s im­pos­si­ble to make such dis­tinc­tions. The oc­cu­pa­tion – which will cel­e­brate 46 years next month – is ob­vi­ously an Is­raeli pro­ject, to which all el­e­ments of so­ci­ety con­tribute and from which al­most all ben­e­fit. The high-tech in­dus­try’s con­nec­tion to the mil­i­tary has been widely dis­cussed, the profit Is­raeli com­pa­nies make ex­ploit­ing West Bank re­sources is doc­u­mented and the cap­tive mar­ket for Is­raeli goods in the West Bank and Gaza is known. Strenger’s own uni­ver­sity co­op­er­ates with the army in var­i­ous pro­grams, and thus con­tributes its own share to the na­tional pro­ject.

I would also say that at this point in time, pay­ing lip ser­vice to the two state-so­lu­tion while blam­ing the Pales­tini­ans for avoid­ing peace can­not be con­sid­ered op­pos­ing to the oc­cu­pa­tion, un­less you want to in­clude Lieber­man and Ne­tanyahu in the peace camp. We should be ask­ing our­selves ques­tions about po­lit­i­cal ac­tion as op­posed to dis­cussing our views: where do we con­tribute to the oc­cu­pa­tion and what form of ac­tions do we con­sider le­git­i­mate in the fight against it?

Prof. Stephen Hawk­ing re­sponded to a Pales­tin­ian call for sol­i­dar­ity. This is also some­thing to re­mem­ber – that the op­pressed have opin­ions too, and that em­pow­er­ing them is a wor­thy cause. In Strenger’s world, the oc­cu­pa­tion is a topic of in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion among the Jew­ish-Is­raeli pub­lic. Some peo­ple sup­port it, some peo­ple – more – are against it; the Pales­tini­ans should sim­ply wait for the tide to change since “it is very dif­fi­cult for Is­raeli politi­cians to con­vince Is­raelis to take risks for peace.” And what hap­pens if Is­raelis don’t chose to end the oc­cu­pa­tion? (Which is ex­actly what they are doing, over and over again.) I won­der what form of Pales­tin­ian op­po­si­tion to the oc­cu­pa­tion Prof. Strenger con­sid­ers le­git­i­mate. My guess: none (code phrase: “they should ne­go­ti­ate for peace”).


The is­sues of boy­cott and anti-nor­mal­iza­tion are per­haps the tough­est for Is­raeli left­ists right now. Like every­one who deals with Pales­tini­ans – if only oc­ca­sion­ally – I have per­son­ally felt the ef­fects of var­i­ous cam­paigns against the oc­cu­pa­tion. I could also say that I have felt alien­ated by the lan­guage and tone of many pro-Pales­tin­ian ac­tivists. Often I feel that they re­ject my Is­raeli iden­tity as a whole, some­times even my ex­is­tence. Many even re­frain from using the name “Is­rael”, leav­ing very lit­tle room for joint ac­tion or sim­ply for mean­ing­ful in­ter­ac­tion.

But all this is be­side the point right now. While I my­self have never ad­vo­cated a full boy­cott, I think that the least Is­raeli left­ists can do is to not stand in the way of non-vi­o­lent Pales­tin­ian ef­forts to end the oc­cu­pa­tion. It’s not only the moral thing to do, but also a smarter strat­egy be­cause as long as Is­raelis don’t feel that the sta­tus quo is tak­ing some toll on their lives, they will con­tinue to avoid the un­pleas­ant po­lit­i­cal choices which are nec­es­sary for ter­mi­nat­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion. Since the Is­raeli left is often un­able to admit its own share in the oc­cu­pa­tion – and there­fore ac­knowl­edge the le­git­i­macy of Pales­tin­ian re­sis­tance – again and again it acts against its own stated goals.

2012 was the most peace­ful year the West Bank has known in a long time (for Is­raelis, that is), and yet at its very end, Is­raelis chose a coali­tion which all but ig­nores the oc­cu­pa­tion. The prob­lem is not just the politi­cians; Is­raelis are sim­ply ab­sorbed by other is­sues. I hope that Stephen Hawk­ing’s ab­sence will serve as a re­minder for the gen­er­als, politi­cians and diplo­mats who will at­tend the Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence next month of the things hap­pen­ing just a few miles to their east – as “neg­li­gi­ble” as they may seem to some.

Fi­nally, Ben White writes in Al-Jazeera that there are count­less rea­sons why Is­rael must face in­ter­na­tional sanc­tion:

The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment and var­i­ous lobby groups use events such as the “Pres­i­den­tial Con­fer­ence” to white­wash Is­rael’s crimes past and pre­sent, a tac­tic some­times re­ferred to as “re­brand­ing”. As a Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs of­fi­cial put it after the 2009 Gaza mas­sacre, it is the kind of ap­proach that means send­ing “well-known nov­el­ists and writ­ers over­seas, the­atre com­pa­nies, [and] ex­hibits” in order to “show Is­rael’s pret­tier face, so we are not thought of purely in the con­text of war”. “Brand Is­rael” is all about cre­at­ing a pos­i­tive image for a coun­try that is the tar­get of human rights cam­paign­ers the world over – as if tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions or high-pro­file con­fer­ences can hide the re­al­ity of oc­cu­pa­tion and eth­nic cleans­ing.

Pales­tini­ans suf­fer­ing under Is­raeli apartheid are call­ing for Boy­cott, Di­vest­ment and Sanc­tions (BDS) as a strat­egy in the re­al­i­sa­tion of their basic rights, a fact that many Zion­ists choose to ig­nore when at­tack­ing boy­cott cam­paigns. The Pales­tin­ian civil so­ci­ety call for BDS was of­fi­cially launched on July 9 2005, a year after the In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice’s ad­vi­sory opin­ion on the il­le­gal­ity of Is­rael’s Sep­a­ra­tion Wall. Sig­na­to­ries to the BDS call come from rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Is­rael, and Pales­tin­ian refugees. Since then, grow­ing num­bers of peo­ple in the likes of acad­e­mia, the arts world, trade unions and faith com­mu­ni­ties have an­swered the BDS call with ini­tia­tives that put the focus firmly on Is­rael’s rou­tine vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional law and end­ing com­plic­ity in these crimes. Pro­fes­sor Hawk­ing is to be com­mended for seek­ing the ad­vice of Pales­tin­ian aca­d­e­mics, and heed­ing their re­quest for in­ter­na­tional sol­i­dar­ity in a decades-long strug­gle for free­dom and jus­tice.

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90 years old, political gay activist, hosting two web sites, one personal: http://www.red-jos.net one shared with my partner, 94-year-old Ken Lovett: http://www.josken.net and also this blog. The blog now has an alphabetical index: http://www.red-jos.net/alpha3.htm