This posting begins with the news of Stephen Hawking’s decision not to take part in the Presidential Conference, which received extensive coverage in the Israeli press. This, with various items of background information on academic and cultural boycott of Israel, make up Part l.
1) Guardian: Stephen Hawking joins academic boycott of Israel;
2) Electronic Intifada: Rights groups launch petition to thank Stevie Wonder for canceling Israel army benefit gig;
3) Photos: Two boycotters, academic and cultural;
4) Electronic Intifada: BDS Roundup: US scholars group unanimously passes boycott of Israeli institutions;
5) BDS movement: Implementing Academic Boycott;
6) Electronic Intifada: John Berger and 93 other authors, film-makers, musicians and performers call for a cultural boycott of Israel; 2009
Inevitably,Professor Hawking’s decision has caused significant controversy. Here is a sample of opinions.
Part ll, commentary UPDATE, Friday May 10, 2013
7) Ben White: Five reasons why Hawking is right to boycott Israel;
8 – New Statesman: Sorry, Stephen Hawking, but a boycott of Israel isn’t the answer Matt Hill argues that academic boycotts are counter-productive;
9) Ha’aretz: Hypocrisy and double standard: An open letter to Stephen Hawking, Carlo Strenger accuses Hawking of hypocrisy;
10) +972: Stephen Hawking’s message to Israeli elites: The occupation has a price, Noam Sheizaf takes on Carlo Strenger, above;
11) Guardian: Stephen Hawking: Furore deepens over Israel boycott, Harriet Sherwood & Mathew Kalman round up opinions;
12) Guardian: Noam Chomsky helped lobby Stephen Hawking to stage Israel boycott, UPDATE May 11, 2013
A statement published with the approval of Stephen Hawking. above, said his withdrawal was based on advice from academic contacts in Palestine. Photo by Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
Stephen Hawking joins academic boycott of Israel
Physicist pulls out of conference hosted by president Shimon Peres in protest at treatment of Palestinians
By Harriet Sherwood and Matthew Kalman, Guardian
May 08, 2013
Professor Stephen Hawking is backing the academic boycott of Israel by pulling out of a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem as a protest at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Hawking, 71, the world-renowned theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, had accepted an invitation to headline the fifth annual president’s conference, Facing Tomorrow, in June, which features major international personalities, attracts thousands of participants and this year will celebrate Peres’s 90th birthday.
Hawking is in very poor health, but last week he wrote a brief letter to the Israeli president to say he had changed his mind. He has not announced his decision publicly, but a statement published by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine with Hawking’s approval described it 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’s decision marks another victory in the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting Israeli academic institutions.
In April the Teachers’ Union of Ireland became the first lecturers’ association in Europe to call for an academic boycott of Israel, and in the United States members of the Association for Asian American Studies voted to support a boycott, the first national academic group to do so.
In the four weeks since Hawking’s participation in the Jerusalem event was announced, he has been bombarded with messages from Britain and abroad as part of an intense campaign by boycott supporters trying to persuade him to change his mind. In the end, Hawking told friends, he decided to follow the advice of Palestinian colleagues who unanimously agreed that he should not attend.
Hawking’s decision met with abusive responses on Facebook, with many commentators focusing on his physical condition, and some accusing him of antisemitism.
By participating in the boycott, Hawking joins a small but growing list of British personalities who have turned down invitations to visit Israel, including Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Annie Lennox and Mike Leigh.
However, many artists, writers and academics have defied and even denounced the boycott, calling it ineffective and selective. Ian McEwan, who was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 2011, responded to critics by saying: “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed … It’s not great if everyone stops talking.”
Noam Chomsky, a prominent supporter of the Palestinian cause, has said that he supports the “boycott and divestment of firms that are carrying out operations in the occupied territories” but that a general boycott of Israel is “a gift to Israeli hardliners and their American supporters”.
Hawking has visited Israel four times in the past. Most recently, in 2006, he delivered public lectures at Israeli and Palestinian universities as the guest of the British embassy in Tel Aviv. At the time, he said he was “looking forward to coming out to Israel and the Palestinian territories and excited about meeting both Israeli and Palestinian scientists”.
Since then, his attitude to Israel appears to have hardened. In 2009, Hawking denounced Israel’s three-week attack on Gaza, telling Riz Khan on Al-Jazeera that Israel’s response to rocket fire from Gaza was “plain out of proportion … The situation is like that of South Africa before 1990 and cannot continue.”
Israel Maimon, chairman of the presidential conference said: “This decision is outrageous and wrong.
“The use of an academic boycott against Israel is outrageous and improper, particularly for those to whom the spirit of liberty is the basis of the human and academic mission. Israel is a democracy in which everyone can express their opinion, whatever it may be. A boycott decision is incompatible with open democratic discourse.”
In 2011, the Israeli parliament passed a law making a boycott call by an individual or organisation a civil offence which can result in compensation liable to be paid regardless of actual damage caused. It defined a boycott as “deliberately avoiding economic, cultural or academic ties with another person or another factor only because of his ties with the State of Israel, one of its institutions or an area under its control, in such a way that may cause economic, cultural or academic damage”.
Stevie Wonder (above at a 2008 rally for Barack Obama) cancelled gig for IDF in advice of UN. Photo by Michal Story / Flickr
Rights groups launch petition to thank Stevie Wonder for canceling Israel army benefit gig
By Ali Abunimah, Electronic Intifada
November 30, 2012
Stevie Wonder performs at a rally for President Barack Obama at UCLA in 2008 (source) (Michal Story / Flickr)
Palestinian rights activists have welcomed a decision by Stevie Wonder to cancel a scheduled 6 December performance at a Los Angeles fundraiser for Friends of the IDF (FIDF), an organization that raises money for the Israeli army.
The US Campaign to End the Occupation and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel which had campaigned for Stevie Wonder to pull out, called on people to sign a petition thanking the music legend for his move.
“As a diverse group of people of conscience and organizations around the world, it is with great joy that we applaud your decision to cancel your performance for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces,” the petition begins.
Earlier, FIDF confirmed Stevie Wonder’s cancelation in a press release. “Representatives of the performer cited a recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation given Wonder’s involvement with the organization,” the release stated.
FIDF director and CEO, Israeli army Major General Yitzhak Gershon expressed “regret” and claimed that FIDF is a ” non-political” and “humanitarian” organization.
Gershon himself is implicated in war crimes committed when he commanded Israeli forces attacking Palestinians in Nablus, in the occupied West Bank during the second intifada.
Judith Butler: “The academic and cultural boycott seeks to put pressure on all those cultural institutions that have failed to oppose the occupation and struggle for equal rights and the rights of the dispossessed.”
By Nora Barrows-Friedman, Electronic Intifada
April 30, 2013
Association for Asian American Studies unanimously approves academic boycott resolution
– United States: The General Membership of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) in the United States voted in favor of a resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The vote, which took place during the annual conference in Seattle, Washington, in mid-April, was passed unanimously.
In a statement, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel(USACBI) said that AAAS is “the first academic organization in the US to boycott Israeli institutions.”
AAAS’ resolution recognizes the systematic repression of education for Palestinians and the impact by Israel’s military occupation on students. It also notes the destuction of schools and universities by Israeli attacks, periodic closures of schools “as a result of actions related to the Israeli occupation,” and Israel’s restrictions of movement and travel faced by Palestinian students and faculty that “obstruct their right to education.”
The resolution adds, in part:
Whereas Israeli academic institutions are deeply complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and human rights and in its denial of the right to education and academic freedom to Palestinians, in addition to their basic rights as guaranteed by international law; and
Whereas the Association for Asian American Studies supports research and open discussion about these issues without censorship, intimidation, or harassment, and seeks to promote academic exchange, collaboration and opportunities for students and scholars everywhere;
Be it resolved that the Association for Asian American Studies endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
Be it also resolved that the Association for Asian American Studies supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Online publication Inside Higher Ed reported on 24 April that:
AAAS president, Mary Yu Danico, confirmed the resolution was approved and directed questions to the association’s past president, Rajini Srikanth, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Srikanth likened the academic boycott to that which was levied against South African universities to protest apartheid, and emphasized that the boycott is of institutions, not individual academics.
“The reason that we’re very clear that this is a boycott of Israeli institutions and not Israeli scholars is that we are very aware that there are Israeli scholars who understand the difficulties that Palestinian academics and students have and speak up in support of Palestinian rights,” she said. “So we would absolutely be working with them, and providing them whatever support they need to challenge their institutions.”
At the same time, she said, “We would discourage partnerships with Israeli academic institutions, whether they’re curriculum partnerships or study abroad partnerships, because that would be becoming complicit with the discriminatory practices of Israeli institutions, and we would be encouraging faculty, staff and students to forge alliances with Palestinian faculty and Palestinian students who now have so much difficulty engaging in conversations with scholars from the rest of the world.”
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI)applauded the Association for Asian American Studies for passing the academic boycott resolution. PACBI’s open letter to AAAS states, in part:
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) salutes the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) in the United States for its principled support for the cause of justice in Palestine by adopting, at its annual meeting in Seattle on 20 April 2013, a resolution supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions and in solidarity with the world-wide movement responding to this call from Palestinian civil society.
Palestinian academics, students and society at large deeply appreciate and are inspired by this most effective expression of international solidarity that reminds us of similar initiatives taken by academics and academic associations worldwide in the 1980s in support of the academic boycott of South Africa under apartheid.
The adoption of this resolution by the General Membership of the AAAS is precedent-setting. This is the first time that a professional association of academics anywhere outside the Arab world adopts such a clear and unequivocal resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions due to their entrenched complicity in Israel’s persistent denial of basic Palestinian rights, including the right to education and freedom of movement.
… The AAAS has proven beyond doubt that effective solidarity with the oppressed is the most morally and politically sound contribution to the struggle to end oppression and to promote human rights and justice. We are certain that this outstanding expression of solidarity and support for the Palestinian BDS movement will galvanize academics across the United States as well as in other countries to issue similar calls for the boycott of the Israeli academy and its complicit institutions.
As in South Africa during apartheid, only by isolating these institutions can there be any chance of ending their complicity in Israel’s multi-tiered system of oppression against the Palestinian people.
We are students from a variety of academic and social backgrounds. Some of us engage with your work and some of us hope to enter the academy and institutions such as yours. For this reason in particular, we see this resolution as an important moral statement that reaffirms the value and relevance of the American academy as an institution capable of advancing the cause of social justice.
The American university is a central location for the struggle to support Palestinian rights. In addition to being a space for students to engage in organizing and education it is an institution that can create or break ties with other academic institutions based on their complicity in oppressive and discriminatory policies. The AAAS statement therefore represents a choice to remove institutional ties until such a time as those ties can be maintained in conjunction with the realization of Palestinian rights.
In light of the backlash that this decision has prompted, we recall the timeless words of Edward Said, who reminds us that “despite the abuse and vilification that any outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and self determination earns for him or herself, the truth deserves to be spoken, represented by an unafraid and compassionate intellectual.” We look forward to the time when all other academic institutions join you in this brave but critical decision.
Belgian students call for academic boycott
A federation representing 100,000 Belgian students in higher education has called for a freeze of all academic partnerships with Israeli academic institutions.
The Comité Palestine Louvain stated on its website that the FEF, the Belgian French-speaking Students Association, has declared:
… that its members firmly condemn the discriminatory and colonialist policy of the State of Israel. Because too many UN resolutions haven’t been respected, the FEF asks for their practical application: the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the occupied territories according to the borders of 1967, the end of colonization, and the application of the right of return for all refugees expelled from their homes, since 1948. The FEF reaffirms the right of the Palestinian people to defend themselves, while condemning blind violence.
Finally, the FEF considers it necessary to re-evaluate the existing cooperation agreements between Belgian French-Community universities and Israeli universities.
The entire document can be accessed here (in French).
From BDS movement
The PACBI Call states:
“We, Palestinian academics and intellectuals, call upon our colleagues in the international community to comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid, by applying the following:
Refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions;
Advocate a comprehensive boycott of Israeli institutions at the national and international levels, including suspension of all forms of funding and subsidies to these institutions;
Promote divestment and disinvestment from Israel by international academic institutions;
Work toward the condemnation of Israeli policies by pressing for resolutions to be adopted by academic, professional and cultural associations and organizations;
Support Palestinian academic and cultural institutions directly without requiring them to partner with Israeli counterparts as an explicit or implicit condition for such support.”
Academic Boycott Guidelines
After years of activism, networking and intellectual development of the campaign, PACBI issued its Guidelines for the International Academic Boycott of Israel in 2009 and revised them slightly in 2010. The following excerpts introduce the logic of the Guidelines.
Before discussing the various categories of academic activities that fall under the boycott call, and as a general overriding rule, it is important to stress that all Israeli academic institutions, unless proven otherwise, are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights, whether through their silence, actual involvement in justifying, whitewashing or otherwise deliberately diverting attention from Israel’s violations of international law and human rights, or indeed through their direct collaboration with state agencies in the design and commission of these violations. Accordingly, these institutions, all their activities, and all the events they sponsor or support must be boycotted. Events and projects involving individuals explicitly representing these complicit institutions should be boycotted, by the same token. Mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is therefore not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott.
An increasing number of Palestinian civil society institutions are no longer willing to host international academics and cultural workers who insist on visiting or working with boycottable Israeli institutions, thereby violating the Palestinian boycott. Hosting those who cross our boycott “picket lines,” many Palestinian organizations now recognize, can only undermine the boycott by presenting a false symmetry” or “balance” between the colonial oppressor and the colonized.
Although visits to the occupied Palestinian territory by international supporters and advocates of Palestinian rights have always been viewed by Palestinians as a source of encouragement and inspiration, PACBI and many Palestinian institutions believe that solidarity also entails respecting the boycott guidelines.
Based on the above, PACBI urges academics, academics’ associations/unions and academic institutions around the world, where possible and as relevant, to boycott and/or work towards the cancellation or annulment of events, activities, agreements, or projects that promote the normalization of Israel in the global academy, whitewash Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinians rights, or violate the boycott.
Boycotting Israeli academic and cultural institutions is an urgently needed form of pressure against Israel that can bring about its compliance with international law and the requirements for a just peace.
For more on the academic boycott visit www.PACBI.org
Brian Eno, photo from all about jazz
John Berger. Photo by Jean Mohr
John Berger and 93 other authors, film-makers, musicians and performers call for a cultural boycott of Israel
By Electronic Intifada and Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
December 15, 2006
PACBI is pleased to announce that in a letter that appears in today’s Guardian, the 94, including the renowned author John Berger; UK musicians and song-writers Brian Eno and Leon Rosselson; filmmakers Sophie Fiennes, Elia Suleiman and Haim Bresheeth; documentary maker Jenny Morgan; singer Reem Kelani; writers Arundhati Roy, Ahdaf Soueif, and Eduardo Galeano, call on their colleagues not to visit, exhibit or perform in Israel.
The letter comes after the August 2006 statement issued by Palestinian filmmakers, artists, writers, and other cultural workers calling for a cultural boycott of Israel.
The Berger letter, signed by artists from across Europe, North and South America, as well as Palestinians and Israelis, reads:
“There is a fragile ceasefire in Lebanon, albeit daily violated by Israeli overflights. Meanwhile the day to day brutality of the Israeli army in Gaza and the West Bank continues. Ten Palestinians are killed for every Israeli death; more than 200, many of them children, have been killed since the summer. UN resolutions are flouted, human rights violated as Palestinian land is stolen, houses demolished and crops destroyed. For archbishop Desmond Tutu, as for the Jewish (former ANC military commander presently South African minister of security), Ronnie Kasrils, the situation of the Palestinians is worse than that of black South Africans under apartheid. Meantime Western governments refer to Israel’s ‘legitimate right’ of self-defence, and continue to supply weaponry.
The challenge of apartheid was fought better. The non-violent international response to apartheid was a campaign of boycott, divestment, and, finally UN imposed sanctions which enabled the regime to change without terrible bloodshed. Today Palestinians teachers, writers, film-makers and non-governmental organisations have called for a comparable academic and cultural boycott of Israel as offering another path to a just peace. This call has been endorsed internationally by university teachers in many European countries, by film-makers and architects, and by some brave Israeli dissidents. It is now time for others to join the campaign ¡ as Primo Levi asked: If not now, when?
We call on creative writers and artists to support our Palestinian and Israeli colleagues by endorsing the boycott call. Read the Palestinian call (www.pacbi.org).
Don’t visit, exhibit or perform in Israel!”
To endorse the letter and add your name, contact email@example.com
An introductory letter from John Berger follows the full list of signatories below:
Full list of signatures as of 13th December:
Aguirre, Carmen, (dramatist)
Al Bayati, Hana (film-maker)
Alcalay, Ammiel, (poet)
Alkadhi, Rheim (artist)
Aziz, Sylvat (artist)
Benner, Ron (artist)
Berger, John (writer and artist)
Beverley, John (writer)
Bove, Paul (editor and writer)
Bresheeth, Haim (film-maker)
Brittain, Victoria (writer)
Budney, Jen (curator)
Cameron, Lindsley (author)
Carew, Keggie (artist)
Casana, Manuel Molins (dramatist)
Chanan, Michael (writer and film-maker)
Chirot, David-Baptiste (artist/writer)
Chrysakis,. Thanos (composer)
Courtney, Andrew (artist)
Cox, Molly Hankwitz (artist and writer)
Creativity commons collective
D’Agostino, Ornella (choreographer)
Davis, Matt (musician)
Deane, Raymond (musician)
Deutsch, Stephen (composer)
Dibb, Mike (film maker)
Donoghue, Ben (film maker)
Eno, Brian (musician)
Erfanian, Eshrat (artist)
Fiennes, Sophie (film-maker)
Fisher, Jean (writer)
Frere, Jane (video artist)
Fried, Klaus (film maker)
Galeano, Eduardo (writer)
Ghaibah, Anas (TV director)
Ghossein, Mirene (writer and editor)
Gill, Rajdeep Singh (curator)
Gordon, Avery (writer)
Greyson, John (film-maker)
Guillen, Maria Munoz (dancer)
Halama, Henry (artist)
Hamka, Nada (artist)
Hashemi, Gita (artist)
Hassan, Jamelie (artist)
Huleileh, Serene (dancer/choreographer)
Humm, Maggie (writer)
Hussien, Reham (translator)
James, Rob (writer)
Jenik, Adriene (media artist)
Jimeno, Dolores (writer)
Joly, Magdalene (dancer and musician)
Kelani, Reem (singer)
Karabelia, Vassia (art historian)
Kauff, Tarak (writer)
Kaya, Mircan (musician)
Knupp, Rainer (movement artist)
Kukovec, Dunja (art historian)
Kumar, Vinod (writer)
Lane, Joel (poet)
Levidow, Les (writer and musician)
Loshitzky, Yosefa (writer)
Lozano, Rian (curator)
Malinowitz, Harriet (writer)
Marlat, Daphne (writer)
Masri, Hala (theatre coordinator)
Matelli, Federica (curator)
McCaughey, Peter (artist)
Metcalfe, Rohelia Hamilton (Film-maker)
Miyoshi, Masao (writer)
Montagnino, Carlo (artist)
Morgan, Jenny (film-maker)
Muntadas, Antoni (artist0
Naguib, Fabiola Nabil (curator)
Neufeldt, Brigitte (artist)
Nunez, Alejandra Perez (sound artist)
Ostrow, Saul (critic/curator)
Pangbourne, Annabelle (composer)
Parker, Cornelia (artist)
Pennell, Miranda (film-maker)
Radhakrishnan, R (writer)
Rosselson, Leon (song writer and author)
Roy, Arundhati (novelist)
Rubin, Andrew (writer)
Salloum, Jayce (artist)
Sampaio, Miriam (artist)
Samuel, Julian (novelist)
Sances, Jos (artist)
Saraste, Leena (photographer)
Sarlin, Paige (film-maker)
Scorda, Cinzia (performer)
Serra, Toni /Abu Ali (videomaker)
Shammas, Anton (novelist and film-maker)
Shibli, Ahlam (artist)
Shiri, Keith (curator)
Simons, Patrick (composer)
Smith, John (artist-film-maker)
Solt, John (poet)
Somes-Charlton, Chris (director)
Soueif, Ahdaf (novelist)
Staikou, Evi (artist)
Suleiman, Elia (film maker)
Sureda, Joseph Ramis (dancer)
Szpakowski, Michael (composer)
Tudela, Ana Navarrete (artist)
Valldosera, Eulalia (artist)
Van Zwanenberg, Roger (publisher)
Walkley, Ron (architect)
Ward, David (composer)
Younghusband, Gene (media theorist)
Zangana, Haifa (novelist)
From John Berger:
I would like to make a few personal remarks about this world-wide appeal to teachers, intellectuals and artists to join the cultural boycott of the state of Israel, as called for by over a hundred Palestinian academics and artists, and – very importantly – also by a number of Israeli public figures, who outspokenly oppose their country’s illegal occupation of the Palestine territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Their call is attached, together with my After Guernica drawing. I hope you will feel able to add your signature, to the attached letter, which we intend to publish in national newspapers.
The boycott is an active protest against two forms of exclusion which have persisted, despite many other forms of protestations, for over sixty years -for almost three generations.
During this period the state of Israel has consistently excluded itself from any international obligation to heed UN resolutions or the judgement of any international court. To date, it has defied 246 Security Council Resolutions!
As a direct consequence seven million Palestinians have been excluded from the right to live as they wish on land internationally acknowledged to be theirs; and now increasingly, with every week that passes, they are being excluded from their right to any future at all as a nation.
As Nelson Mandela has pointed out, boycott is not a principle, it is a tactic depending upon circumstances. A tactic which allows people, as distinct from their elected but often craven governments, to apply a certain pressure on those wielding power in what they, the boycotters, consider to be an unjust or immoral way. (In white South Africa yesterday and in Israel today, the immorality was, or is being, coded into a form of racist apartheid).
Boycott is not a principle. When it becomes one, it itself risks to become exclusive and racist. No boycott, in our sense of the term, should be directed against an individual, a people, or a nation as such. A boycott is directed against a policy and the institutions which support that policy either actively or tacitly. Its aim is not to reject, but to bring about change.
How to apply a cultural boycott? A boycott of goods is a simpler proposition, but in this case it would probably be less effective, and speed is of the essence, because the situation is deteriorating every month (which is precisely why some of the most powerful world political leaders, hoping for the worst, keep silent.).
How to apply a boycott? For academics it’s perhaps a little clearer – a question of declining invitations from state institutions and explaining why. For invited actors, musicians, jugglers or poets it can be more complicated. I’m convinced, in any case, that its application should not be systematised; it has to come from a personal choice based on a personal assessment.
For instance. An important mainstream Israeli publisher today is asking to publish three of my books. I intend to apply the boycott with an explanation. There exist, however, a few small, marginal Israeli publishers who expressly work to encourage exchanges and bridges between Arabs and Israelis, and if one of them should ask to publish something of mine, I would unhesitatingly agree and furthermore waive aside any question of author’s royalties. I don’t ask other writers supporting the boycott to come necessarily to exactly the same conclusion. I simply offer an example.
What is important is that we make our chosen protests together, and that we speak out, thus breaking the silence of connivance maintained by those who claim to represent us, and thus ourselves representing, briefly by our common action, the incalculable number of people who have been appalled by recent events but lack the opportunity of making their sense of outrage effective.
PART ll: commentary
Five reasons why Hawking is right to boycott Israel
Hawking should be commended for pulling out of an Israeli conference as a protest at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
As announced by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) and subsequently covered by The Guardian, Reuters and others, world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking has decided to heed the Palestinian call for boycott, and pull out of an Israeli conference hosted by President Shimon Peres in June. After initial confusion, this was confirmed – Hawking is staying away on political grounds.
Here are five reasons why Professor Hawking is right to boycott:
5. Whitewashing apartheid
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.
4. Shimon Peres
Despite his reputation in the West as a “dove”, Peres’ career to date includes war crimes in Lebanon, support for collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza, and, in private discussions, incitement against non-Jewish citizens. Anyone would do well to avoid a conference hosted by such a hypocrite. Simply not being Ariel Sharon does not really cut it; Peres should be scheduled for a trip to The Hague, not welcoming foreign dignitaries and celebrities.
3. Boycott is not incompatible with ‘dialogue’
Contrary to the rhetoric of Israeli officials and sympathisers, boycott is not contrary to dialogue. Hawking’s decision, for example, will mean people are discussing Israeli policies and strategies for ending occupation. That is not atypical – BDS initiatives often encourage a meaningful exchange of views and perspectives. However, some people abuse the concept of dialogue to defend an asymmetrical status quo, leaving intact a colonial power dynamic where, in the words of South African poet James Matthews, “the oppressor sits seared with his spoils/with no desire to share equality/leaving the oppressed seeking warmth/at the cold fire of/Dialogue”. Boycott has nothing to do with having, or not having, conversations – it is about accountability for, and opposing, basic violations of a people’s rights. Confronting and resisting the reality of Israeli apartheid begets a dialogue that is fully realised in the context of equality and decolonisation.
2. Impunity and accountability
The boycott is grounded firmly in the well documented facts of Israeli policies. The US State Department speaks of “institutional discrimination” faced by Palestinian citizens, while Human Rights Watch says Israel maintains a “two-tier system” in the West Bank. From the “discriminatory” control and distribution of water resources (Amnesty International) to the “forced transfer of the native population” (European Union), it is no wonder that the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has reported Israel as violating prohibitions against “racial segregation and apartheid”.
Illegal settlements are used to colonise the West Bank, Palestinians in Gaza are blockaded and bombed, Palestinians in East Jerusalem have their homes demolished – and all the while, of course, expelled Palestinian refugees just a few miles from their properties are still prevented from returning home on the basis they are not Jews. And note that the “But what about China/Myanmar/Syria etc” line misses the point (as well as placing Israel in some rather interesting company). A boycott is a tactic, advisable in some contexts, and not in others. It is not about a scale of injustice or wrongdoing. It is about a strategy targeting systematic human rights abuses and breaches of international law, called for by the colonised. Which brings us to…
1. The Palestinian call for solidarity
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.
Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. He is on “Inside Story” on Al Jazeera English discussing Hawking and BDS. It is broadcast at 17.30 GMT, May 09. It will appear online here:
A general boycott plays into the hands of Israel’s hard-right leaders. Instead, we should punish firms and institutions that operate in the Occupied Territories.
If the aim was to hit Israel where it hurts, Stephen Hawking’s withdrawal from the Israeli Presidential Conference couldn’t have been better planned. Hawking had accepted an invitation to the gathering of world leaders and scholars in June, but announced yesterday he was dropping out in solidarity with Palestinian academics who have called for a boycott of Israel. Israel’s self-image as a full member of the community of nations rests to a large extent on its global prominence in science and technology. This move, by the world’s most famous scientist, punches a hole in that cherished idea, reminding Israel of its other identity: that of a semi-pariah state, synonymous with occupation and war.
So why, as a fervent supporter of Palestinian rights, can’t I bring myself to support Hawking’s decision? In a decade-and-a-half of visits to Israel/Palestine, I have seen at first-hand the effects of Israel’s cruel occupation. I have heard West Bank residents describe the despair caused by Israel’s system of closures, roadblocks and curfews, and seen the degrading conditions of refugee camps like Dheisheh and Jenin. I have stood alongside Palestinians protesting the loss of their lands to settlements and the ‘separation fence’. And, writing about the conflict, I have likened Israel to a junkie with a “deadly addiction” to Palestinian land.
Nor is my opposition to Hawking’s move based on the usual argument trotted out against the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Partisans of Israel often charge BDS with inconsistency, claiming it’s hypocritical to single out Israel and not other countries who abuse human rights. But this won’t wash. When it comes to moral acts, the question isn’t whether we are consistent but whether we have a chance of achieving some good. When activists led a boycott of South Africa during the apartheid years, they didn’t wait until their movement could boast a consistent platform on every conceivable issue. And the clear message they sent the South African regime – that its practices were intolerable in the modern world – helped bring about its downfall.
The problem with the BDS campaign is that the message it sends Israel is anything but clear – and, as a result, it risks being counterproductive. In his letter to the conference’s organisers, Hawking wrote about his concerns about “prospects for a peace settlement”, saying that “the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster”. But Israel’s supporters claim that the BDS movement has little to do with the occupation, peace, and government policy, and is instead intended to bring into question the Jewish state’s right to exist.
It’s true that Israel’s supporters throw the word ‘delegitimisation’ around to portray fair-minded criticism of Israel as invidious and sinister. But when it comes to BDS, the fact is that they have a point. The BDS movement doesn’t have a single leadership with stated goals, but most of the biggest groups within it make little secret of their preferred outcome to the conflict. Instead of a two-state solution, they support a single, Palestinian-majority state that would mean the end of Israel’s existence. Don’t take my word for it. Norman Finkelstein, the heroic pro-Palestinian author and activist, recently launched a blistering attack on the BDS movement, telling an interviewer: “[The Israelis] say ‘They’re not talking about rights. They want to destroy Israel.’ And in fact, I think they’re right. . . . There’s a large segment of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel.”
Stephen Hawking is a brave and principled man, and there’s no doubt his gesture was intended to send Israel a signal about the need for peace and an end to its oppression of Palestinians. But, in doing so, he has added his considerable weight to a movement whose aims are in many ways the opposite of his message of peace and reconciliation. It’s significant that the website of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, one of the biggest UK supporters of BDS, reproduced Hawking’s letter of withdrawal – but clipped the part which referred to a “peace settlement”.
But how important is all this? If moves like Hawking’s help Israel understand that its policies will not be tolerated by the rest of the world, does it matter if they were orchestrated by a medley of groups harbouring a fantastical goal that has no chance of being realised? The most important thing, surely, is to bring pressure on Israel to change course, and end the forty-six-year-old occupation.
But here’s the thing: whatever the intentions of figures like Hawking, what Israel hears from BDS is the voices questioning its right to exist. This plays into the narrative of its hard-right leaders, who tell their people: “The world will never accept us, and we must rely on our own strength to survive. That is why we must never compromise or show vulnerability.” It’s for this reason that Noam Chomsky – hardly a Zionist stooge – has said that a general boycott of Israel is “a gift to Israeli hardliners and their American supporters”.
Instead of boycotting Israel, we should boycott firms and institutions that operate in the Occupied Territories. That means shunning brands like Ahava, which manufactures its products in the West Bank settlement of Mitze Shalem. For academics, it means refusing to have dealings with Ariel University, located in one of Israel’s biggest settlements across the Green Line. And it means backing EU plans to clearly label settlement products – and then pressuring supermarkets to remove these goods from their shelves.
In this way, we can send Israel a clear and bold message. We can say: “We support your right to live in peace and security. But we reject the occupation of a single inch of Palestinian soil, the demolition of single Palestinian home, the spilling of a single drop of innocent blood.”
This isn’t about pulling our punches, or sending Israel a softer message. It’s about refusing to give its leaders a reason not to hear us.
By deciding not to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, one of the world’s leading scientists is singling out Israel and denying it has been under existential threat for most of its existence.
By Carlo Strenger, Ha’aretz
May 08, 2013
Dear Professor Hawking,
There are many reasons why you are considered one of the world’s leading scientists. As you know very well, one reason for your achievement is the ability to keep a mind of your own and to refuse caving in to pressure by the mainstream. Innovation is only possible if you are immune to such pressure.
Given my respect for your achievement I am surprised and saddened by your decision, reported today by The Guardian that you have cancelled your participation at this year’s President’s Conference in Jerusalem, and that you have joined those who call for an academic boycott of Israel. I would have expected a man of your standing and achievement not to be influenced by the pressure that was reportedly exerted on you to cancel your visit in Israel.
Let it first be said that I have been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories for many years, and that I have voiced this opposition with all means at my disposal. I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is indefensible morally, stupid politically and unwise strategically, and I will continue opposing it as long as I can.
This being said, I have always found it morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible that many British academics have been calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This call is based on a moral double standard that I would not expect from a community whose mission it is to maintain intellectual integrity.
Yes, I think that Israel is guilty of human right violations in the West Bank. But these violations are negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China, to mention only a small number of examples. Iran hangs hundreds of homosexuals every year; China has been occupying Tibet for decades, and you know of the terrible destruction Russia has inflicted in Chechnya. I have not heard from you or your colleagues who support an academic boycott against Israel that they boycott any of these countries.
But let me go one step further: Israel is accused of detaining Palestinians without trial for years. So is the USA, which, as you very well know, to this day has not closed Guantanamo Bay. Israel is accused of targeted killings of Palestinians suspected or known to be involved in terrorist acts. As is reported worldwide, the United States has been practicing targeted assassinations of terror suspects in many countries for years.
The question whether these detentions and targeted assassinations can be justified is weighty, and there are no simple answers. Personally I think that even in a war against terror democracies must make every conceivable effort to maintain the rule of law and avoid human rights violations.
Yet let us not forget that both Israel and the United States are in difficult situations. Israel was on the verge of a peace agreement with the Palestinian people when the second Intifada broke out. Daily Israelis were shredded into pieces by suicide bombings, and it is very difficult for Israeli politicians to convince Israelis to take risks for peace. The U.S. is still reeling from the trauma of 9/11. It has occupied two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade since. I happen to think that it was wrong to attack Iraq, in the same way that I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is wrong.
Professor Hawking: how can you and your colleagues who argue for an academic boycott of Israel justify your double standard by singling out Israel? You are simply denying that Israel has been under existential threat for most of its existence. To this day Hamas, one of the two major parties in Palestine, calls for Israel’s destruction, and its charter employs the vilest anti-Semitic language. To this day hardly a week goes by in which Iran and its proxy Hezbollah do not threaten to obliterate Israel, even though they have no direct conflict with Israel about anything.
Singling Israel out for academic boycott is, I believe, a case of profound hypocrisy. It is a way to ventilate outrage about the world’s injustices where the cost is low. I’m still waiting for the British academic who says he won’t cooperate with American institutions as long as Guantanamo is open, or as long as the U.S. continues targeted assassinations.
In addition to the hypocrisy, singling out Israel’s academia is pragmatically unwise, to put it mildly. Israel’s academia is largely liberal in its outlook, and many academics here have opposed Israel’s settlement policies for decades. But once again, British academics choose the easiest target to vent their rage in a way that does not contribute anything constructive to the Palestinian cause they support.
Israel, like any other country, can be criticized. But such criticism should not be based on shrill moralism and simplistic binary thinking – something I do not expect from academics. The real world is, unfortunately a messy, difficult place. Novelist Ian McEwan is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed … It’s not great if everyone stops talking” when he was criticized for coming to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 2011.
He certainly has a point. Living up to the standards of human rights and the ideals of democracy in an imperfect world is difficult. Major thinkers like Philip Bobbitt and Michael Ignatieff have invested deep and comprehensive thought into the difficult topic of how to maintain the human rights standard in a world threatened by terrorism.
Professor Hawking, I would expect from a man of your intellectual stature to get involved in the difficult task of grappling with these questions. Taking the simple way out of singling out Israel by boycotting it academically does not behoove you intellectually or morally.
If your cancelation was indeed a function of pressures and not from health reasons, as stated by your university following The Guardian’s report, I would respect it if you were to reconsider your decision and come to the President’s Conference.
By Noam Sheizaf, +972
May 08, 2013
By choosing to avoid the Presidential Conference – an annual meeting of Israeli generals, politicians and business elites with their international fans, Prof. Hawking reminds that the occupation cannot be forgotten or avoided. A response to Haaretz’s Carlo Strenger.
The British Guardian on Wednesday reported that Prof. Stephen Hawking has cancelled 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.
Political motive revealed after Cambridge University first claimed scientist’s non-attendance was on medical grounds
By Harriet Sherwood and Matthew Kalman in Israel, and Sam Jones, Guardian
May 09, 2013
(1311 comments by Friday 14.30)
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 the Palestinian 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.
US professor Noam Chomsky expressed regret at Hawking’s initial acceptance of invitation to speak at conference in Israel
By Robert Booth and Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, guardian online
May 10, 2013
Noam Chomsky was among 20 academics who privately lobbied Professor Stephen Hawking to boycott a major Israeli conference, it has emerged.
Chomsky, a US professor and well-known supporter of the Palestinian cause, joined British academics from the universities of Cambridge, London, Leeds, Southampton, Warwick, Newcastle, York and the Open University to tell Hawking they were “surprised and deeply disappointed” that he had accepted the invitation to speak at next month’s presidential conference in Jerusalem, which will chaired by Shimon Peres and attended by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Hawking pulled out this week in protest at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, in the wake of receiving the letter and soundings from Palestinian colleagues. The 71-year-old theoretical physicist’s decision has been warmly welcomed by Palestinian academics, with one describing it as “of cosmic proportions”, but was attacked in Israel.
On Friday the liberal academic David Newman, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben Gurion University in Israel, warned that an academic boycott “just destroys one of the very few spaces left where Israelis and Palestinians actually do come together”.
Chomsky, who has backed “boycott and divestment of firms that are carrying out operations in the occupied territories”, agreed to add his considerable weight to the pressure on Hawking after email correspondence with the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine campaign group (Bricup), said its chair, Jonathan Rosenhead.
The letter to Hawking declared: “Israel systematically discriminates against the Palestinians who make up 20% of its population in ways that would be illegal in Britain”, its treatment of the people of Gaza amounts to “collective punishment”, the construction of Jewish settlements breaches the Geneva convention and “Israel places multiple roadblocks, physical, financial and legal, in the way of higher education, both for its own Palestinian citizens and those under occupation”.
The letter continued: “Israel has a name for the promotion of its cultural and scientific standing: ‘Brand Israel’. This is a deliberate policy of camouflaging its oppressive acts behind a cultured veneer.”
Professor Malcolm Levitt, a fellow of the Royal Society and an expert in magnetic resonance at Southampton University, who signed the letter, said: “Israel has a totally explicit policy of making life impossible for the non-Jewish population and I find it totally unacceptable. As a scientist, the tool I have available to prevent the normalisation of that situation is boycott. It is a tough choice because Israel is full of brilliant scientists and they are our colleagues.”
Bricup is now to call on Lord Skidelsky, a leading economic historian, to refuse his invitation to speak at the conference. Skidelsky, emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick and a Tory peer, declined to comment and is understood to still be planning to attend.
News of Chomsky’s role in what has been considered the coup of Hawking’s decision for the movement came amid growing signs in UK academia of interest in supporting boycotts of Israel. At its annual congress beginning on 29 May, the University and College Union will urge its 120,000 members to consider rethinking links with Israeli academic institutions. Teachers and lecturers will be asked to “consider the appropriateness of Israeli institutional associations”, according to a draft motion.
“It is brave of Hawking for the straightforward reason that someone who has his prominence will be targeted for vilification,” said Tom Hickey, a member of the UCU’s executive committee who put forward the draft motion. “If he can do that then all of us should think of doing it. This isn’t about targeting Israeli scholars but targeting the institutions.”
Pro-boycott academics believe action by scientists is particularly effective in opposing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians because the country’s strength in science and technology is a key driver of the economy, and they claim the research capabilities of Israeli academic institutions have been deployed in support of advanced programmes such as the development of drone aircraft.
On Friday the fallout from Hawking’s decision continued to be felt. “It is one of the starkest indicators yet that the tide is changing in the western mainstream against Israel’s occupation, colonisation and apartheid, and that the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is fast reaching its South Africa moment of maturity and impact,” said Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and founding member of the BDS.
Others warned it would damage Israeli-Palestinian relations. “There are certain areas that are above political boycotts whatever your political positions are,” said Newman. “Scientific co-operation is one of those particularly when you think of the wider benefits of science on the whole. In this context, universities are among the few spaces in Israel-Palestine where, even in these difficult times, there is some sort of dialogue and co-operation.”
The British author Ian McEwan, who was criticised two years ago when he visited Israel to accept the Jerusalem Prize, said: “My feeling [in 2011] was that I wished to engage with the best elements of Israeli society and I don’t want to isolate those people,” he said.
He said there were dozens of countries “whose governments we might loathe or disapprove of” but “Israel-Palestine has become sort of tribal and a touchstone for a certain portion of the intellectual classes. I say this in the context of thinking it is profoundly wrong of the Israeli government not to be pursuing more actively and positively and creatively a solution with the Palestinians. That’s why I think one wants to go to these places to make the point. Turning away will not produce any result.”
Samia Botmeh, director of the centre for development studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank, and a member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s steering committee, said Hawking’s decision had significantly boosted the boycott movement locally and internationally, but denied there had been a “huge, orchestrated campaign” to persuade him. “It will be easier now for other academics who have been supportive of Palestinian rights but were reluctant to act on their support,” she said.