Will the Stephen Hawking boycott of Israel lead to peace in the Middle East?

May 14, 2013 by Emily Gian
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Many of you would have read last week of a decision by renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking to join the academic boycott of Israel by pulling out of the upcoming 2013 President’s Conference in Jerusalem.

..writes Emily Gian.

Emily Gian

Emily Gian

The conference, run under the auspices of President Shimon Peres and now coming into its fifth year, assembles world leaders, international scholars, activists, poets and scientists, artists and clergy, entrepreneurs, economists and industrialists, as well as representatives of the next generation of leaders

Each year, Palestinians have also featured at the conference, including members of the Palestinian Authority.  

This year’s conference, under the headline of “Facing Tomorrow”, is to cover a broad range of issues and will engage with them “not only by identifying the challenges, but also by seeking to suggest solutions that may lead to a better tomorrow for Israel, the Jewish people and for all humanity”.

This is what Hawking decided to boycott when he pulled out of the conference last Wednesday. 

Initially it was thought that he had done so for health reasons with a spokesman for the University of Cambridge issuing a statement declaring that “Professor Hawking has decided to cancel his planned visit to Israel on the advice of doctors”.

Later in the day it was revealed that Hawking had sent a letter to organisers saying, “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”.

Hawking had thus submitted himself to their will and thereby decided there was no place for him in discussing what could be done to produce a better world for all humanity.

The issue became an instant conversation piece on social media and on the internet from Facebook and Twitter to websites, news agencies, blogs and emails. 

Over the course of a few days I literally came across hundreds of items covering the issue. It even made our local press on Friday with an article in the Fairfax media entitled ‘Hawking joins boycott of Israel’ and one in the Australian entitled, “Hawking branded hypocrite over boycott”.

Most of what I came across articulated a similar sentiment, disappointment that such an intelligent man could make such a seemingly unwise decision. That he could refuse to go Israel based on political reasons after visiting countries such as Iran (in 2007) and China (in 2006) while turning a blind eye to the serious abuses of Human Rights which routinely take place in both countries suggests a certain level of hypocrisy.

I confess to having wondered initially about whether Israeli scientific innovation had assisted Hawking over the years but others have been less subtle.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner from Israel’s Law Centre declared “Hawking’s decision to join the boycott of Israel is quite hypocritical for an individual who prides himself on his whole intellectual accomplishment. His whole computer-based communications system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team. I suggest if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet”.

Many on social media and in blogs expressed similar views but attacking Hawking’s disability does not necessarily respond to the issue.

One of the common strategies against the BDS movement has been to ask them to turn off their computers, which use Israeli technology, or to stop taking certain life-saving medications that were developed in Israel to demonstrate the hypocrisy of those in the movement.

However, this does not of itself respond to the underlying flaws of the BDS movement to which Hawking has handed a victory by declaring his support for their cause. 

The chairman of the conference, Israel Maimon stated that “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. 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”.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Yigal Palmor said “it is a shame that someone like Hawking would add another brick in the wall to alienation and confrontation rather than do something constructive for peace”.

In any event, I wonder whether everyday Israelis actually care whether people like Stephen Hawking or Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame come to Israel or not.

When I speak to friends and family in Israel about what I do here in Australia, the majority have barely heard about the BDS movement. When the Hawking story made news last week, it did make the Israeli press. Within one news story on Israel’s Channel 2 news the presenters talked about the contact push by the BDS movement to stop artists from appearing and performing in Israel but they also showed the packed stadiums that Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Depeche Mode (who officially opened their latest tour in Tel Aviv the night before the Hawking furore) perform in front of. Those who oppose BDS with its racist undertones and the declared intention of its framers to being an end to the Jewish State are clearly looked upon far more favourably than its detractors.

So Hawking who, by accepting the invitation and then refusing it, came across as having spurious motives and intentions and rated one news item before the news moved on to stories that actually affect Israelis – such as the proposed budget by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, or the debate surrounding the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem or the potential sale of an Israeli navigation application called Waze to Facebook for $US 1 billion (perhaps the next target for the boycotters?).

It reminds me of the saying in Hebrew which translates to “what we see from there, we don’t see from here”. What matters to us as Zionists in the Diaspora often does not directly correlate with what matters to everyday Israelis. This is why our approach is different. When we hear of someone boycotting Israel, for whatever reason and whatever pressures, we feel the need to defend, to stand up and remind rational people why a boycott is wrong on so many fundamental levels. This is legitimate, and we should continue to do this.

But we must also remember to put it into perspective. 

Stephen Hawking may have contributed much to science and our understanding of the universe, Roger Waters may have had a part in some hit songs a long time ago but they are not willing to boycott terror, hatred and vilification in the region and because of their stand they will never be able to initiate peace for its peoples.

Emily Gian is the Israel Advocacy Analyst at the Zionist Council of Victoria and a PhD Candidate in Israeli Literature at the University of Melbourne


6 Responses to “Will the Stephen Hawking boycott of Israel lead to peace in the Middle East?”
  1. ben eleijah says:

    Predictable slander and smear of Hawkins. The conference will serve no other purpose than whitewash the continued expansion of Israel’s settlements, exclusive roads, check points and the barrier inside the West Bank and the apartheid of civil law for Israeli settlers and military occupation for the Palestinians.

    Hawkins has seen through this and decided not to add his name to the hasbara. He has every right to decide not to go. His slanderers would have credibility if the demanded that Israel stop building settlements as the first step towards peace and justice.

    • Gil Solomon says:

      Ben Eleijah,

      If no one else will say it, I will.
      I hope you don’t suffer from any delusion that your comments are ever taken seriously by the majority who post to this site, let alone worthy of substantive reply.

  2. Gil Solomon says:

    I for one am sick and tired of the response by Jews in Israel and worldwide, lamenting the decision by Stephen Hawking not to attend a conference run by that left wing idealogue Shimon Peres.

    If Hawking has made up his mind to join an academic boycott of Israel, then so be it. Are Jews so pathetic that we lament his non attendance (due to him having received emails from Palestian “academics” not to attend) and virtually plead with him to reverse his decision or give a detailed reason so maybe we can understand his position?
    Why does anyone expect that a person like Hawking will be able to do something constructive for peace? Just because he is a physicist means squat.

    What specifically does he know of the Middle East?
    I suggest not much. If his brain can be washed so easily just by some emails, then I have no idea what he could possibly contribute to a conference “seeking solutions that may lead to a better tomorrow for Israel, the Jewish people and for all humanity.”

    No other country in the world would invite a miscellaneous rabble from around the world to come and give it political advice on what it should do. If Palestinians, including members of the Palestinian Authority attend as they have in the past, what would one expect them to say? Something reasonable and constructive? Have we taken leave of our senses?

    The reason Israel has no respect politically worldwide is because it does not act like a sovereign nation which will not tolerate any interference in its internal affairs. Instead, in many cases, thanks to likes of Peres, Israel goes out of its way to get the opinions of those who don’t necessarily know anything but the propaganda they have been fed and many others who are clearly hostile to Israel’s very existence. In a nutshell, people who basically couldn’t care less about “solutions that may lead to a better tomorrow for Israel and the Jewish people.”

    This conference is pure fantasyland stuff brought to you by that so called “elder statesman” Shimon Peres. It’s time the Jewish world woke up out of its coma.

  3. Rita says:

    At first I have wondered if Hawking is an Idiot savant or a Jew Hater.

    I wonder no more.

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