by Eric Hal Schwartz
Physicist Stephen Hawking canceled his plans to attend Israel’s president’s conference in Jerusalem last week, citing Israeli policies toward Palestinians and reinvigorating the controversial movement for an academic boycott of Israel.
Hawking had previously been slated to headline the June conference, now in its fifth year, before sending a letter to Israeli President Shimon Peres that he would no longer travel to Israel. The decision gained massive public attention after an article in the British newspaper The Guardian pointed to a note Hawking allowed the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine to publish announcing why he was withdrawing.
The note read: “I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank. However, 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. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”
“Hawking is a hypocrite who wants to boycott Israel but uses Israeli computer chips, Israeli computer systems,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Israel Law Center.
The Israel Law Center is deeply involved in fighting the boycott movement, Darshan-Leitner said, and has so far helped successfully limit the boycott’s intent to harm Israel and the Israeli economy.
“We have to fight it while it is small,” she explained.
The 71-year-old Hawking is one of the most famous scientists in the world both for his groundbreaking work in the fundamental physics of the universe and for doing so during a decades-long battle with ALS. Once the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, Hawking’s work in physics and his popular books on the subject for a general audience have made him a household name and his stand with the boycott movement a focus for a torrent of intense and often emotional commentary from all sides.
Chairman of the conference, Israel Maimon, released a statement soon after the story broke, denouncing the boycott movement.
“The use of an academic boycott against Israel is outrageous and improper, particularly for those to whom the spirit of liberty is the basis of the human and academic mission. Israel is a democracy in which everyone can express their opinion, whatever it may be,” the statement reads.
The boycott group cites issues like settlements, displaced Palestinians and the stalled peace process among other claims of Israeli wrongdoing, but Darshan-Leitner said that their reasoning rings false.
“The whole legal basis for the argument is totally wrong,” she said.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement officially began in 2005 as an effort of the Palestinian Civil Society but is rooted in earlier efforts.
“We, representatives of Palestinian civil society, call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era,” states part of the open letter published by the group.
A similar attempt first gained notice in Britain in 2002 when The Guardian newspaper printed a letter from two British scientists calling for breaking off academic and cultural ties with Israel. Describing the boycott as a way to force Israel to adhere to international law, the letter demanded Israel change its policies and activities with regard to the West Bank, Gaza and Palestinians as a group. The letter garnered hundreds of signatures and has led to boycotts by some European academic organizations. Recently the Teachers’ Union of Ireland joined groups like the University and College Union in Britain in their own boycott.
“It’s a form of modern anti-Semitism,” Darshan-Leitner said.
In the U.S. just within the last few months there has been a nonbinding resolution to boycott Israel by students at UC San Diego and the Oberlin College Student Senate endorsed a boycott. However, the BDS movement as a whole has never gained much traction at an official or institutional level.
For now, at least, anti-Israel boycotts remain only talk in the U.S. even as they make sporadic gains in other countries including South Africa and Canada.
These efforts can create uncomfortable teaching environments, especially for Jewish students, she said, and anti-Semitic attitudes, despite claims to the contrary by boycotters, are all too likely.
“Jewish students have to take action against this phenomenon,” she said.
As for Hawking’s commitment to the boycott, a flurry of voices both supporting and criticizing his choice have emerged, with boycott advocates applauding him and groups like the Zionist Organization of America condemning his decision as both wrong and surprising.
Hawking has visited Israel four times previously for events and conferences. He had spoken out against Israeli policies beforehand, including calling responses to Gaza rocket attacks in 2009 an overreaction and comparing the country to apartheid-era South Africa.
Despite the boycott’s efforts and Hawking’s withdrawal, the conference, which will coincide with Israeli President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday, is still expected to draw record numbers. More than 5,000 people are confirmed to attend, including dignitaries such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Prince Albert of Monaco and Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union. Singer Barbra Streisand will also be in attendance in between planned concerts.