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Advocacy Update: Stephen Hawking boycotts Israel

Advocacy Update: Will the Stephen Hawking boycott of Israel lead to peace in the Middle East?

13 May 2013

By Emily Gian

Many of you would have read last week of a decision by renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking to join the academic boycott of Israel by pulling out of the upcoming 2013 President’s Conference in Jerusalem.

The conference, run under the auspices of President Shimon Peres and now coming into its fifth year, assembles world leaders, international scholars, activists, poets and scientists, artists and clergy, entrepreneurs, economists and industrialists, as well as representatives of the next generation of leaders. Each year, Palestinians have also featured at the conference, including members of the Palestinian Authority.

This year’s conference, under the headline of “Facing Tomorrow”, is to cover a broad range of issues and will engage with them “not only by identifying the challenges, but also by seeking to suggest solutions that may lead to a better tomorrow for Israel, the Jewish people and for all humanity”.

This is what Hawking decided to boycott when he pulled out of the conference last Wednesday.

Initially it was thought that he had done so for health reasons with a spokesman for the University of Cambridge issuing a statement declaring that “Professor Hawking has decided to cancel his planned visit to Israel on the advice of doctors”.

Later in the day it was revealed that Hawking had sent a letter to organisers saying, “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” (see more). Hawking had thus submitted himself to their will and thereby decided there was no place for him in discussing what could be done to produce a better world for all humanity.

The issue became an instant conversation piece on social media and on the internet from Facebook and Twitter to websites, news agencies, blogs and emails.

Over the course of a few days I literally came across hundreds of items covering the issue. It even made our local press on Friday with an article in the Fairfax media entitled ‘Hawking joins boycott of Israel’ and one in the Australian entitled, “Hawking branded hypocrite over boycott”.

Most of what I came across articulated a similar sentiment, disappointment that such an intelligent man could make such a seemingly unwise decision. That he could refuse to go Israel based on political reasons after visiting countries such as Iran (in 2007) and China (in 2006) while turning a blind eye to the serious abuses of Human Rights which routinely take place in both countries suggests a certain level of hypocrisy.

I confess to having wondered initially about whether Israeli scientific innovation had assisted Hawking over the years but others have been less subtle. Nitsana Darshan-Leitner from Israel’s Law Centre declared “Hawking’s decision to join the boycott of Israel is quite hypocritical for an individual who prides himself on his whole intellectual accomplishment. His whole computer-based communications system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team. I suggest if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet”. Many on social media and in blogs expressed similar views but attacking Hawking’s disability does not necessarily respond to the issue.

One of the common strategies against the BDS movement has been to ask them to turn off their computers, which use Israeli technology, or to stop taking certain life-saving medications that were developed in Israel to demonstrate the hypocrisy of those in the movement. However, this does not of itself respond to the underlying flaws of the BDS movement to which Hawking has handed a victory by declaring his support for their cause.

The chairman of the conference, Israel Maimon stated that “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. 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”.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Yigal Palmor said “it is a shame that someone like Hawking would add another brick in the wall to alienation and confrontation rather than do something constructive for peace”.

In any event, I wonder whether everyday Israelis actually care whether people like Stephen Hawking or Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame come to Israel or not.

When I speak to friends and family in Israel about what I do here in Australia, the majority have barely heard about the BDS movement. When the Hawking story made news last week, it did make the Israeli press. Within one news story on Israel’s Channel 2 news the presenters talked about the contact push by the BDS movement to stop artists from appearing and performing in Israel but they also showed the packed stadiums that Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Depeche Mode (who officially opened their latest tour in Tel Aviv the night before the Hawking furore) perform in front of. Those who oppose BDS with its racist undertones and the declared intention of its framers to being an end to the Jewish State are clearly looked upon far more favourably than its detractors.

So Hawking who, by accepting the invitation and then refusing it, came across as having spurious motives and intentions and rated one news item before the news moved on to stories that actually affect Israelis – such as the proposed budget by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, or the debate surrounding the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem or the potential sale of an Israeli navigation application called Waze to Facebook for $US 1 billion (perhaps the next target for the boycotters?).

It reminds me of the saying in Hebrew which translates to “what we see from there, we don’t see from here”. What matters to us as Zionists in the Diaspora often does not directly correlate with what matters to everyday Israelis. This is why our approach is different. When we hear of someone boycotting Israel, for whatever reason and whatever pressures, we feel the need to defend, to stand up and remind rational people why a boycott is wrong on so many fundamental levels. This is legitimate, and we should continue to do this. But we must also remember to put it into perspective.

Stephen Hawking may have contributed much to science and our understanding of the universe, Roger Waters may have had a part in some hit songs a long time ago but they are not willing to boycott terror, hatred and vilification in the region and because of their stand they will never be able to initiate peace for its peoples.