Stephen Hawking and the Boycott.16.05.13

Stephen Hawking and the Boycott                                                                         16.05.13




Howard Adelman


Today I want to write about Stephen Hawking, not because I can identify my tiny correctable handicap with his enormous uncorrectable one, but because it is a simpler issue to get back to writing my blog. I myself have boycotted conferences – but only a very few. The last one was at my own university, York, where I had agreed to give a paper at a conference on considering a one state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian problem. I was going to present a paper on why a two state solution was the only reasonable solution and why one state solutions were really opportunities for complete victory by either one side or the other, even when one state solutions were advocated by utopians instead of greater Israel zealots or Palestinian anti-Zionist advocates. I cancelled my participation when the program indicated that the conference would not strictly be an academic conference but would provide a platform for ideological zealots, this time from the anti-zionist side, a development that ran contrary to the promise I was given when I agreed to participate. It was a personal and individual boycott of a particular conference and I never suggested that anyone join me or that others boycott or that YorkUniversity conferences in general be boycotted. I have no objection in principle to academics boycotting a conference.

Stephen Hawking’s position is different in most of these respects except that he too originally agreed not only to participate but to be the headline speaker in a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, the fifth annual president’s conference, Facing Tomorrow 2013. The Human Factor in Shaping Tomorrow., 18-20 June. This year’s theme asked “whether the quality of leadership – in all realms of human activity – can make a difference. What is the desired dynamic in relationships between people and leaders in the face of powerful processes of change?” This year’s conference was also intended to honour Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday.

The conference was not a political conference. Hawking had not agreed to participate under certain conditions and those conditions were breached. He was persuaded to withdraw after enormous pressure was put upon him to withdraw as an endorsement of the BDS Campaign, the campaign to boycott Israel, divest from investing in Israel and participate in sanctions against Israel. He initially personally made no public announcement, but when the initial explanation offered cited his poor health – and his health is indeed poor — his office issued a statement of correction indicating that the withdrawal was an expression of sympathy for the Palestinian cause as a protest at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, with Hawking’s approval, described his withdrawal as “his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there”.


Hawking has visited Israel at least three or four times before. In 2006, in a series of lectures sponsored by the British Embassy he gave lectures at Israeli and Palestinian universities. However, in 2009, he clearly and vociferously expressed his disapproval of Israel’s “disproportionate” response to the rocket attacks from Gaza and compared Israel to South Africa under the apartheid regime. In light of this, why was Hawking invited to headline the conference?

The criticism has actually not been of the withdrawal per se, nor even particularly of the reasons for the withdrawal – namely as an expression of sympathy for the treatment of Palestinians by Israel – but because the statement eventually made clear that the withdrawal was an expression of support for the BDS movement. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign was begun on 9 July 2005 by 171 Palestinian NGOs who had formed The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel the year before and was a follow-up of the notorious NGO Forum, the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001. That conference harked back to the theme of Zionism is racism and promoted the equation of Israel with apartheid South Africa. It called for “mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel”.

The goal of the campaign was not recognition of Palestine as a state alongside Israel. The goal was the use of non-violent means to promote three goals:

1. Ending the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian [note, not Arab-Israeli citizens] of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of return of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.


With respect to item 3, note first that this is neither what Resolution 194 said nor what it meant when it was passed, though that is what it has come to be popularly interpreted as meaning following numerous UN General Assembly Resolutions over the years. (See the chapter on Palestinian refugee return in Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press.) Secondly, with regard to the second point above, the basic laws of Israel – equivalent to constitutional principles – include the Right to Human Dignity and Liberty and “Declares basic human rights in Israel are based on the recognition of the value of man, the sanctity of his life and the fact that he is free” and “Defines human freedom as the right to leave and enter the country, privacy (including speech, writings, and notes), intimacy, and protection from unlawful searches of one’s person or property” including protection against infringements by means of emergency regulations. Subsequent basic laws on employment guaranteed every Israel national or resident’s “right to engage in any occupation, profession or trade”. Any violation of this right shall be “by a law befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required.” The problem in Israel is not recognizing the fundamental rights of Palestinian or Arab-Israelis but full implementation of those rights. Third, with respect to the first point, the call for the end of the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands” is part of the rhetoric that Jewish Zionists are colonizers and occupants of Arab lands inIsrael and not just in the West Bank. The BDS campaign has as its most visible face in Canada “Israel Apartheid Week” that was initiated in Toronto in 2005 while Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East focuses on promoting strategic boycotting of Canadian and Multinational corporations operating in Canada as well as academic boycotts. 


The general spectrum of this campaign includes Jewish and Israeli anti-Zionist advocates, such as those who belong to the legal human rights organization, Adalah, who urge that Israel should be like Canada, a “democratic, bilingual and multicultural state” and not a Jewish state and, as such, oppose the “right of return” to Israel of Jews but advocate recognizing the right of return of Palestinian refugees. They inherently oppose UN Resolution 181 that initially recognized the partition of the land of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Essentially, all of these advocacy groups deny Zionism as a legitimate national independence movement of the Jewish people while endorsing Palestinian national self-determination. Hawking’s agreement to support the BDS campaign has to be understood in this context.

If I agreed that Jewish national self-determination was illegitimate but virtually all other forms of national self-determination were legitimate, then I probably would also consider joining a boycott of state-sponsored events that implicitly if not explicitly endorsed the principle of Jewish national self-determination. So I do not think that Hawking’s joining such a boycott is “morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible”. It may be morally objectionable and intellectually hypocritical and utterly stupid in my mind, but even stupid positions can be intellectually defended. Further, although Hawking’s position can be associated with the BDS campaign, it is not at all clear that he supports an academic boycott of Israel.

Nor do I find the criticism valid that Hawking, or others, who target Israel but ignore the myriad of other states who are abusers of human rights, are hypocrites with double standards. They are part of a campaign to delegitimize the right of Israel to exist or of Zionism as a movement of national self-determination. Members of the BDS and its related movements can readily admit – though they rarely do – that rights in Israel are upheld better than in most states of the world and, certainly far more than rights in China or Iran, Turkey or Egypt. That is not the real point. The real issue is of collective rights. Do Jews have a right to national self-determination in their ancient homeland? If you deny that they do while insisting that Palestinians have such rights, then focusing on Israel exclusively makes perfect sense quite aside from one’s right to be selective in one’s political efforts. What other national movement of self-determination is seen as inherently illegitimate? Kurdish national self-determination or Tibetan national self-determination or Chechen national self-determination may be seen as imprudent or impractical or unrealizable but not as illegitimate.

So I do not think the advocates of a boycott against Israel are guilty of a double standard. They have a single standard that denies that Jews are a legitimate national identity with any rights of national self-determination. Perhaps they also believe this is also true of Inuit people but I have never read or heard of any pronouncements of denial of such rights for any other people.

Nor do I think that academia should be immune from boycotts simply because academia is ostensibly dedicated to dialogue and discourse. As I indicated in my opening, I am for and participate in boycotts when I believe supposed academic occasions are betrayals of academic purposes. Further, I am somewhat hypocritical in this regard. I have attended academic conferences at al Quds University and Bir Zeit University in which ideological ranters participated but where the majority of papers were proper academic presentations but would not agree to do so in the context of my own university, not only because promises were made to me that this would not be the case, but because I have a higher standard for universities that thrive in a free western environment as distinct from universities which struggle hard to uphold academic standards in a political hotbed.

I do know if Stephen Hawking is aware that his decision to withdraw from the Jerusalem conference can be read as an implicit endorsement of anti-Zionism and antipathy to the principle of the national self-determination of the Jewish people. One would think he is not opposed to Zionism for he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on a previous occasion. If he is not opposed to Zionism per se or Israel as a Jewish state, then he may simply be ignorant of the larger political context of the BDS movement. Further, criticisms of government policies at a particular time, whether of the American-led invasion of Iraq or of Russia’s treatment of Chechnya or of China’s treatment of Tibet, are not best exercised are not best pursued by boycotts of academic or intellectual conferences having nothing to do with such situations.

There is an even more serious problem with Hawking participating in the boycott that has little to do with political naiveté and ignorance and a great deal to do with reinforcing a so-called “shtetl” mentality in Israel, namely, the belief by a great number of Jews and Israelis, that no matter how hard they try, whatever the failures, the goyim will never grant Jews the same rights as others. Why be vigilant in protecting everyone’s rights when other so-called universalists are so negative about Jewish rights? Hawking’s position, without any chance of really being effective in the real world of politics, will affect those who are intransigent on both sides in reinforcing their positions and making the possibility of peace even more remote. Instead of reinforcing listening, instead of enhancing dissident voices, such stands shut down listening and reinforce ideology.



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