The decision by Stephen Hawking to add his support to the international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians has predictably resulted in a furore not only in intellectual and academic circles but also in the mainstream, due to the renown in which he is held around the world as a physicist, intellectual, and author.
What many people don't know is that Hawking's support for BDS against Israel is merely the latest stage in a campaign that has been under way since the call was originally made for a 'comprehensive economic, academic, and cultural boycott' of Israel in 2002 by various Palestinian intellectuals and academics living in the Occupied Territories. Out of this original call came the formation of The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) in Ramallah two years later in 2004.
The statement of principles issued to the international academic and cultural community urges a boycott of all Israeli academic and cultural institutions until
- Israel withdraws from all Palestinian land occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem.
- Israel removes all its colonies (settlements) from Palestinian land.
- Israel agrees to United Nations resolutions relevant to the restitution of Palestinians refugee rights (UN Resolution 194).
- Israel dismantles its system of apartheid against the Palestinian people.
It is a statement of principles supported and endorsed by over sixty Palestinian academic, cultural and civil society federations, unions and NGOs.
The inspiration behind the BDS campaign is the international boycott campaign against apartheid in South Africa, credited with playing a key role in bringing it to an end in 1990. It was a campaign which grew from small beginnings when it began in London in 1959 - involving just a few campaigners - to become a global phenomenon over the next three decades, challenging the structural racism and apartheid of the then white controlled South African state.
As with its predecessor, the BDS campaign in solidarity with the Palestinian people has attracted the support of individual trade unions in Brazil, France, Sweden, South Africa and the UK, while in recent years both the Scottish and Irish Trades Union Congress have also endorsed the campaign. It is all evidence of a groundswell of international awareness when it comes to the plight of the Palestinian people.
Earlier this year the campaign was subject to a legal challenge in the UK, when a group of pro-Israel UK-based academics brought proceedings against the University and College Union (UCU) to an employment tribunal on grounds of 'institutional anti-semitism' over the union's support for BDS.
After considering all of the evidence and the case brought against the UCU, the three-person tribunal dismissed the case in a 49-page ruling that called into question the credibility of those who'd brought the case, their witnesses, and the veracity of their testimony.
As the tribunal made clear in its conclusion:
"Lessons should be learned from this sorry saga. We greatly regret that the case was ever brought. At heart, it represents an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means. It would be very unfortunate if an exercise of this sort were ever repeated."
On the level of the cultural boycott, artists that to date have either refused to perform in Israel, attend events sponsored wholly or in part by the Israeli government, or signed up the cultural boycott of Israel, include Elvis Costello, Ken Loach, Carlos Santana, Gil Scott Heron, Roger Waters, Alice Walker, and Iain Banks. Furthermore some Israeli artists now refuse to perform at venues located in illegal Jewish settlements and have signed up to the aims and objectives of the international boycott in general.
Other high profile figures who consider Israel to be an apartheid state are former US president Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his part in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
In a letter to students at the University of California in 2012, congratulating them on voting to support divestment from Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, Tutu wrote:
"I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.
"In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom and just peace without the help of people around the world, who through the use of non-violent means, such as boycotts and divestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the Apartheid regime."
Israeli academics are understandably aggrieved and even outraged at the decision of such a renowned figure as Stephen Hawking to join the BDS campaign in solidarity with the Palestinians. However their anger should be directed at their own government.
There can be no opt out or exceptionalism when it comes to upholding universal human rights. As a result, justice for the Palestinians is fast becoming the cause of humanity in our time.