Change My Mind: Is Stephen Hawking's Boycott Of Israel Fair?

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Renowned scientist and author Professor Stephen Hawking made headlines this week after he pulled out of a June conference in Israel on Wednesday.

After some initial confusion over why Professor Hawking chose not to attend the conference, hosted by the country's president Shimon Peres, it emerged through a statement, approved by the celebrated physicist, that his withdrawal was for political reasons, and not for health reasons as was believed.

The University of Cambridge had alleged on Wednesday that his reasons for non-attendance were purely health related, but was later forced into a volte-face.

Hawking's withdrawal raised a debate: Is a boycott the right course of action? What do you think?

Below, campaigner and author Ben White blogs on how boycotts can change political landscapes, while former adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu Tzahi Gavrieli blogs on why it's wrong for Hawking to "boycott an entire people".

Can either of them change your mind?


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Is Stephen Hawking fair in boycotting Israel?

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Ben White Writer, freelance journalist, researcher

What is a boycott? A boycott is about applying pressure in an effort to effect change, a nonviolent way of expressing opposition to a particular policy. As part of a wider campaign, it is a way to challenge or end complicity in a practice viewed as objectionable. Boycotts and divestments are strategies of the weak against the powerful, and, in some contexts - such as Palestine/Israel - they are also responses of solidarity with a group that asks for outside support in a struggle for justice.

That is an important place to start because of all the disingenuousness and red herrings used in the discussion by Israel's apologists and opponents of the boycott. But why is Stephen Hawking right to boycott Israel? Indeed, why are any of the growing list of celebrities, trade unions, faith communities, and student unions right to support the BDS campaign?

First, the boycott is a response to decades of Israeli occupation and violations of international law. To be in denial about this well-documented, past and present reality means no sensible discussion about the merits of a boycott is possible.

Second, boycott is about ending impunity and ensuring that there is a cost for persisting with certain policies. Reversing the typical accusation levelled at BDS campaigners of 'singling out' Israel, it is in fact Israel that is already singled out - for economic, diplomatic and military support and protection from accountability.

Third, boycott resonates as a strategy people are familiar with from many different contexts - from challenging unethical business models like sweatshop labour to more famous historical examples in workers' struggles and fights. People get it - it empowers those looking to respond, and, as part of a bigger whole, is a way of campaigning that time and time again makes a difference.

Four, a boycott of Israel is required because, in the words of a former Israeli Air Force captain and now activist, "it is no longer enough to try and change Israel from within". Sadly, there is no 'peace camp' in Israel, if, by peace camp one means a sizeable body of Israelis who support equality for Palestinians and the realization of all their rights. In fact, Palestinians need less of the so-called 'peace camp', and more of an 'anti-apartheid camp'. To different extents, Jewish Israelis benefit from the status quo - as the privileged group in an ethnocracy - and thus pressure from the outside is about making that status quo unsustainable and undesirable - along with Palestinian resistance of course.

Five, it is already having an impact. It is a nonsense to ask if an individual boycott will 'make a difference' or 'help Palestinians' purely in isolation - just as you wouldn't criticise an Amnesty International supporter because just 'one letter' won't free a political prisoner. Rather, it is about an accumulative impact - and indeed, the BDS campaign has made astonishing progress since its official launch in 2005.

You can tell that the Israeli government and its supporters are worried because of all the time, energy and money devoted to fighting and attacking boycott activists and initiatives. BDS is a marginal failure, they say, while organizing conferences, passing legislation, taking legal action, and paying for propaganda trips - all designed to thwart a tide of solidarity. Indeed, Tzipi Livni's election campaign included warnings that Benjamin Netanyahu was leading the country towards isolation and sanctions.

Stephen Hawking made a good decision - and he is not the first or the last. Palestinians have been using tactics like boycott for decades. With the BDS call, now more and more people around the world are hearing their appeal for action.

Tzahi Gavrieli Attorney, has served as an advisor to Israeli Prime Ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert

Dear Prof. Hawking:

When I was a boy in ninth grade, I received a book as a birthday present. It was your successful work, A Brief History of Time. At that time, we did not yet have the internet, so I scoured the papers and the news on radio and television for any scrap of information about you. I was incredulous: "How is it possible that a man in a wheelchair who can barely speak has made such important discoveries about space?", I asked my father.

Since then, twenty-five years after your book was published, my ears have been listening out for the sound of your name - for a return to those moments of my youth, to the sense of wonder at someone - you - who had proven that it is possible to do the impossible. That is, until Wednesday.

Because Wednesday you announced that you were cancelling your participation in the Israeli Presidential Conference. The reason was that you feel obligated to respect the academic boycott against Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians. Your announcement was endorsed by spokespeople of a body called: "The British Committee for Universities in Palestine", another in a long list of organizations that are instigated by Palestinian elements and their partners in the cheap propaganda campaign known as BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions against Israel).

Boycotts are flawed in principle. But there is something even more outrageous when intellectuals, scientists and cultural leaders in particular boycott an entire people, any people. Because if there is one field in which there must be room for dialogue, for a cultural bridge, for moral change, it is precisely here, on the same platform on which you and your colleagues stand. If I had to define this in your scientific language, I would say that the boycott creates reverse, negative energy, a vacuum. In my words - it leads to extremism, a hardening of positions, and deterioration. Yes, a boycott leads to a void that does not allow for dialogue, persuasion or discussion. Not with the boycotted people and certainly not with your colleagues, Israel's scientists, researchers, artists and writers.

How often it happens that we find a song that has made us think differently about something, about somebody, about a particular people? How often we realize that the discovery of a foreign scientist, whose name we can barely pronounce, has changed our lives forever? How often it is that the director of a political film has caused us to say to someone next to us: "You know, apparently it really isn't ok."

Professor Hawking, if you wanted to have an influence on the future of the Palestinians and on what you claim is Israel's problematic treatment of them, then it would be important for you to be here, in Jerusalem, Israel's capital, to say those things. Say them so that they resonate, provoke debate, make headlines. Say them so that we will listen, so that we nod our heads, so that we go back to our loved ones and say, "You know, I heard Prof. Hawking today and there's something in what he says..."

Because as hard as it is for us to hear what you have to say, Israel is still a vibrant and lively democracy, one with freedom of speech that is unparalleled, not only in the Middle East but also in the Western world from which you come. Because it is permissible and appropriate to expect that an intellectual of your stature would face the questions, would try to understand that there is a gray area of reality between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

I, Professor Hawking, have grown up. I am no longer a boy. I have come to understand that reality is generally not simple. It is not black or white, but mostly gray. It is a pity that you of all people, the object of my admiration, should have chosen to boycott me, the same child with a dream. It saddens me that you have chosen the black option, the option of boycott - the one that creates black holes in the relations between people's and countries, the same black holes that swallow up all that crosses their path. It is just this that I learned from the book that I got as a present, A Brief History of Time.

And what will be with the next young reader who gets your book for his birthday? Will he or she also learn the same important life lesson that I was privileged to receive in my youth? Sadly, your support for the boycott passes down to the next generation the failure of the culture of dialogue and the betrayal of all that is right and good in our millennia-old basic values: the values of science, culture and art.



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