Hawking’s Israel Boycott In Its UK Context

05.09.13 10:50 PM ET

Stephen Hawking, one of the UK's most brilliant minds, and a man revered by much of the British population for his indefatigable ability to navigate the challenges that life has thrown at him, announced yesterday that he would not be attending the 5th Presidential Conference in Israel this coming June. His letter to the conference organizers explained that he had decided to “respect the boycott after receiving a number of emails from Palestinian academics.” Israel's ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, responded to the announcement with the following statement: “It is a great shame… Rather than caving into pressure from political extremists, active participation in such events is a far more constructive way to promote progress and peace.”

In the case of academic boycott, the stakes are incredibly high. It's one thing to refuse to buy Israeli wine; it is something else altogether to refuse to collaborate with another academic. It beguiles the notion of free thought, and the idea that academic freedom stands above political difference. At its worst, it looks like the case of Moti Cristal, the Israeli academic who was invited to speak at a National Health Service conference in Manchester, UK. His invite was later withdrawn after pressure from UNISON trade union members, who, despite UNISON's own policy of boycott of goods and services from Israeli settlements only, did not want to be lectured in conflict resolution by an Israeli. (Note that, while still deeply problematic, official guidelines set out in the Palestinian call for an organized academic boycott do not support boycott solely on the basis of nationality.)

But when it comes to Stephen Hawking, surely one cannot level the criticism that he does not believe in Israel's right to exist (not least because he has travelled to the country on a number of occasions and uses Israeli technology to enable him to speak), does not support freedom of expression, or that he somehow does not have the ability to distinguish between political extremism and political protest. It would be something of an insult to his amazing mind to suggest he lacks those critical faculties. So what are we, the pro-Israel Anglo Jewish community, to make of his decision?

Just a few weeks ago, the anti-boycott campaign in the UK suffered a significant defeat in the arena of academia after a tribunal cast out a case brought by Ronnie Fraser, a maths teacher, and supported by significant organizations and individuals inside the Jewish community, against his teaching union, the University College Union. Fraser argued that the union had harassed him in breach of equality laws due to its handling of the Israel-Palestine debate.

The judgement dismissed the case as a “sorry saga,” citing members of a tribunal who “greatly regret that the case was ever brought.” Significant criticism was meted out by the judges against some of the witnesses, including accusations of “playing to the gallery,” “scoring points” and being “extraordinarily arrogant.” In case the reader is not convinced of the extent to which the battle was lost, the tribunal judges ruled that the case highlighted “a worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression.”

It seems we need some new ground rules if we are to win the case for Israel in the public arena.

First, it is clear that we need to challenge the assumption that anyone who calls for, or supports, any form of boycott is beyond the pale. We can debate, disagree with tactics, call out anti-Semitism when it is clearly there, but we have to accept that people have a right to employ a set of tools we do not agree with. It is that simple.

Second, we have to learn to live with the reality that freedom for the Palestinian people is the cause célèbre of our time. At one time in the UK it was nuclear disarmament, another time it was apartheid South Africa (that is not a comparison), and now it is the occupation of the West Bank. We might not like that, and it might not be fair that it is Palestine and not the Democratic Republic of Congo or Syria. It might well be the case that there is something sinister about those who have been involved in turning it into the zeitgeist of our times. But no amount of hasbarah, campaigning, showing the “positive contribution of Israel in the world” is going to change that. And so we should wise up to the fact that until there is a state of Palestine, in every student union, teaching union and trade union, Israel and her policies in the West Bank will be at the top of the agenda. Some of the debate is and will continue to be anti-Semitic, and Jews and non-Jews alike have a responsibility to call that out and deal with it appropriately. And some of it is just not what we like to hear. 

Third, it is possible that the harder we find the criticism to hear the more likely we are to call it out as anti-Semitic, and this is behavior that we have to change. The findings of the National Jewish Student Survey conducted in 2011 found that respondents who are “very positive” about Israel are more likely to have experienced anti-Semitism than those who are “fairly positive” (48 percent compared with 37 percent respectively). As Peter Beinart has argued elsewhere on this blog, “injustice doesn’t stop being injustice because people describe it in imprecise, unfair ways.”

In a meeting I recently took part in with senior members of the British civil service, one of them commented that the Jewish community would need to accept that there is a very grave concern within the UK political establishment that time is really running out to end the conflict along the lines we all imagined: two states for two peoples. At the same time it was made very clear that on no uncertain terms does this represent a slide into a discourse of delegitimization of Israel within our political elite. Instead, they warned that because of a desire to expedite a political resolution, we are likely to hear more and more concern and also criticisms being aired by our politicians, and as a community we must distinguish that from inappropriate criticism of Israel.

John Humphrys, who is probably Britain's most well known radio voice and who presents the inimitable Today Programme on Radio 4, asked this morning: “Isn't it the case that the boycott has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of Palestinian people?” If he is right, and the world is watching, they should also see serious efforts on the part of Israel and those who count themselves as Israel's supporters worldwide, doing all that is in their power to change the situation. Surely that would be the best reaction of supporters of Israel in the UK to the latest boycott drama?