Hawking and the boycott

Submitted by martin on 13 May, 2013 - 3:55

Stephen Hawking's decision not to attend an 18-20 June conference in Jerusalem has caused much celebration among advocates of an academic boycott of Israel.

Hawking himself has made no statement on the issue, but the academic boycott campaign has published a letter from him to the organisers saying: "I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott". They claim it as a boost for their line that academics, writers, and cultural figures of all sorts should boycott Israel and Israelis across the board.

Yet, as US professor Noam Chomsky said, in an interview done when he visited Gaza City in October 2012 to express solidarity with the Palestinian people:

"A call for an academic boycott on Tel Aviv University will strengthen support for Israel and US policy because it's not understood...

"In the case of any tactic, you ask yourself, what are its consequences, ultimately for the victims, and indirectly for the audience you are trying to reach... Those are the questions you ask if you care about the victims, if you don't care about the victims, you won't bother with these questions and you just do what makes you feel good".

The boycott has hit and will hit those Israelis most interested in communicating with leftish and liberal opinion across the world. It strengthens the Israeli right in its siege mentality. It undercuts work towards the solidarity between Israeli internationalists, Palestinian campaigners, and activists across the world, on which real progress towards Palestinian liberation depends.

A telling fact about the boycott campaign is that its most visible Palestinian proponent, Omar Barghouti, far from boycotting Israeli academia has been registered for Ph D study at Tel Aviv university.

The boycott has an ugly anti-semitic undertone, in that, to the (small) extent it gathers momentum, it marginalises and targets Jewish people across the world who, for reasons of family ties or Jewish identity, value links with groups inside Israel (but may yet be very critical of Israeli government policy). In real political terms it is a propagandist annexe to the Arab League boycott of Israel, and before it of the Jewish community in Palestine, a boycott in operation since 1945 which has never been a force for progress.

The twist to the story is that the conference Hawking has withdrawn from is not an academic conference. Israeli government supporters have accused Chomsky of encouraging Hawking not to attend, and if Chomsky did that he was right to do so.

The event is an Israeli government junket, the "Presidential Conference". Rather than debating questions of theoretical physics, it is billed as about blah-blah such as "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?"

It is chaired by Israeli president Shimon Peres and attended by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, none of them likely to have an interest in physics.

Hawking's attendance there would be more like his appearance in the TV ads for the financial services comparison website, "Go compare", than an academic connection with an Israeli physicist.