The decision by world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking to pull out of a major Israeli conference gives a boost to that murky, one-sided campaign known as BDS: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.
For those who support guarantees for a safe and secure Israel alongside a Palestinian state as part of a permanent negotiated solution to the conflict, Hawking’s move requires some explanation.
First, it was made as the 71-year-old is reported to be in very poor health. He lives with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou
Gehrig’s disease, which causes nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord called motor neurons to degenerate.
Some charge it is hypocritical for Hawking to boost BDS as he continues to use a Core i7 chip designed by an Intel team in Israel, but we do not agree. Israel should be justly proud that his life has been enhanced by research developed in Israel.
Israeli advances in science and technology across a broad spectrum stand as major achievements of a successful country, born after withstanding wars, invasion and threats by its neighbours. The world’s only country with a Jewish majority, Israel is a relatively successful democracy in stark contrast to Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Hawking’s letter to Israeli President Shimon Peres, who hosted the conference, has not been published, but a statement describes “his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there.”
He added that had he attended, he would have stated his opinion “that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”
Indeed, some Israelis agree with this assessment but do not necessarily endorse BDS as helping build support for a two-state solution to the
The academic boycott is wrong because it impedes communication among intellectual leaders who influence policy. It ignores the fact that the academy in Israel includes many who challenge the occupation of land captured in 1967, increasingly substantial government support for building and expanding settlements, and how these actions sap confidence in the prospects for creating a viable Palestinian state.
Hawking’s decision gives an adrenaline boost to the boycott movement, a stiff body check to Israel’s fight against delegitimization.
The BDS campaign not only calls for an end to cooperation with Israeli academics, which makes no sense at all. It targets Israeli enterprises and institutions based in the settlements.
In some cases BDS supporters want to sever ties with all things Israeli. Lebanese-American political science professor As’ad Abukhalil makes no bones about where he wants BDS to go. He writes in his blog, “There should not be any equivocation on the subject. Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the State of Israel.”
As for the conference itself, this is not your typical scholarly gathering—it has a definite PR flavour to it, because it also celebrates Peres’s 90th birthday. Speakers include Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, known for their even-handed though failed efforts to build a lasting peace, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who by promoting Perestroika and Glasnost was a prime mover in ending Soviet Communism.
Apart from academics, featured speakers include singer Barbara Streisand, actor Sharon Stone, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, and the only Canadian, Raheel Raza. She is president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow, described as the first Muslim woman in Canada to lead mixed gender prayers.
Raza also runs a Forum for Learning directed at educating young people “about the dangers of radicalization and terrorism.”
The speakers list should remind us that in the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict it takes two to tango, two to move beyond 1948—independence for Israel, the nakhba (disaster) for Palestinians—and two to make those bold, perilous, but necessary moves to end this conflict in the least painful way possible.
Hawking’s boycotting of the Israel’s academy, and the BDS movement itself are counter-productive and deserve condemnation.