Hawking boycotts Israel

May 9, 2013 at 4:58 pm (celebrity, Guest post, Human rights, intellectuals, israel, Middle East, palestine, Pink Prosecco, science)

Guest post by Pink Prosecco

Stephen Hawking, explaining his decision to boycott the Shimon Peres Presidential Conference in Israel, describes what he had planned to say:

“Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”

That is a strong statement, but it’s not an eccentric or hateful view – and you certainly don’t have to be an enemy of Israel to share it.  Yet although I can understand why some (particularly Palestinians) have urged Hawking to boycott this event, I very much regret his final decision.  There are many countries which would not have allowed him to strike his planned dissenting note – and where requests for solidarity from those considering themselves oppressed could not even have been articulated.  Here is Omar Barghouti’s response:

But Palestinians welcomed Hawking’s decision. “Palestinians deeply appreciate Stephen Hawking’s support for an academic boycott of Israel,” said Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “We think this will rekindle the kind of interest among international academics in academic boycotts that was present in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.”

I believe Barghouti is still registered as a PhD student at Tel Aviv University. That doesn’t mean that he can’t speak out against the injustices of occupation, checkpoints, detention or any other topic, or indeed call for boycott.  Clearly he can.  And that fact in itself might make one wonder, not whether Israel should be protected from robust criticism over its policies, but whether it is really the one country in the world which deserves to be the focus of such a very concerted boycott campaign.

39 Comments

  1. Mark said,

    I’ve always hated the idea of academic boycott. In effect, it conflates Greater Israel apologists with secularists who oppose the occupation. That is an incredibly unhelpful position.

  2. Eric said,

    Boy, this is tedious. I generally like SS’s criticism of the left’s idiocies on Israel, but sometimes you have to go through painful contortions to get there. “There are many countries which would not have allowed him to strike his planned dissenting note” is a classic right-wing preface to “love it or leave it,” a valorization of dissent to squash dissent. Here it seems to indicate something similar, but also is used to (once again) proclaim Israel’s enlightenment and civilized impulses.

  3. Eric said,

    As for why Israel is the unique target of such boycotts, that’s both harder to explain and quite obvious. Because socialist leftists tend to have poor theories on the state, they often have moralistic opinions on nations–US and Israel bad!; Venezuela good!–rather than political ones. So yeah, it’s stupid to think that Israel is uniquely bad, or that somehow it is exceptional in being a racist nation that keeps a large population rightless, stateless, and without political representation..

    On the other hand, one doesn’t fight an abstraction; one fights a nation, not the nation form. The struggle against Israel is exceptional because, in many ways, Israel’s policies are exceptional. Surely you recognize this.

  4. Argaman said,

    How are Israel’s policies exceptional (good or bad) in a world full of bad state actors? And why would an academic boycott lead to changing those policies? No one is suggesting an academic boycott of Saudi Arabia, or North Korea, or for that matter China, which still has labor camps for dissidents, or Russia, which seems to be sliding back into its old authoritarian ways, or Cuba – in fact people on the left are angry at the US government for maintaining its embargo. Wouldn’t speaking to Israelis (or any citizen of a country whose government does things you don’t like) be more helpful? A lot of Israeli academics are against what their government is doing – what use is it to boycott them? People have called for engagement with Iran – why not with Israel? Every nation state is guilty of doing horrible things – does it help the people who live in those states to boycott them?

  5. Gerry said,

    Ah yes the classic why are you singling out Israel issue. It’s been debunked many times. Do those protesting South Africa in 1978 share responsibility for not doing more to oppose the Khmer Rouge? Should those calling for a free Tibet currently turn their focus to the plight of the Rohingya right now because that conflict currently more genocidal than the situation in Tibet?

    I don’t support blanket academic boycotts, especially since there are many brave Israeli academics who oppose the occupation, however this isn’t an academic event. It’s called the Presidential Conference. This is really President Peres bringing together Israeli political, military and business elites for a show. These elites are no friends to the working classes of Israel or Palestine.

    This is like accusing someone of being bigoted towards Australians if someone boycotted a G20 meeting held in Melbourne. These are playgrounds of the elite not avenues for honest dialogue.

    • Antizionism is a sick joke said,

      It hasn’t been “debunked”, it’s repeatedly been casually dismissed by the sort of tragic Jew-haters who have devoted every minute of the last ten years or so to delegitimising Israel and campaigning for a Jew-free Islamist state of Palestine, and do not wish to entertain any thought which suggests their miserable, hate-filled lives as racist campaigners have been wasted. that ain’t the same as “debunked”.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    The “why are you singling out Israel?” argument deserves to be taken much more seriously than Gerry’s glib dismissal of it. It has *not* “been debunked may times” and it remains a powerful indictment of the anti-Semitism that the Stalinist movement has passed down to the broad left, including even sections of the Trotskyist left.

    South African apartheid was a unique form of racism (the suggestion that Israel is in any way comparable is either political illiteracy or conscious dishonesty) that warranted, to some degree, singling out South Africa over and above other states with equally bad human rights records. No such argument can be used in the case of Israel viz a viz, say China or Syria. The *only* explanation is vestigial anti-Semitism on the “left.”

    However, I find Gerry’s point about the nature of the Presidential Conference persuasive, and I’m glad to read that he (she?) opposes “blanket academic boycotts.”

    • Antizionism is a sick joke said,

      Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Thank you.

      Unfortunately it doesn’t matter how many times you make this articulate, well reasoned argument – the antisemitic “left” has seen Ken Livingstone extensively comparing Israel to South Africa on Iranian government propaganda channel Press TV, and has read countless articles in the Guardian saying Israel is not just comparable to but WORSE than Apartheid SA, and has said to itself “this is the party line and we’re sticking to it”. The next step from the SA comparison is the “Israelis are just like Nazis” line (as favoured by one or two of your commenters and a whole heap of ignorant, racist scum around the UK).

      But don’t give up, it’s always great to hear this sort of intelligent response.

  7. Paul Mabbot said,

    Funny how the Zionists don’t hold their state to the same high standards they hold others. In fact seeing as other states don’t have their high standards they think that entitles them to do what they like.

  8. Paul Mabbot said,

    Denham doesn’t hold Israel to the same standards he holds Assad or the Taliban for instance. He gives it carte blanche to ethnically cleanse as much as it likes.

    • Antizionism is a sick joke said,

      Christ, what utter drivel.

      It’s not enough for some Nazis to compare Israel to Apartheid SA, you have to compare Israelis to the Taliban and the Nazi Party of Syria.

      Are you a 19 year old student under peer pressure from some horrid SWP-infiltrated university soc? Or are you simply Jew-hating slime with such a lack of a life you have to spend all your time spreading your racist venom on the internet?

  9. Paul Mabbot said,

    Well done Professor Hawking by the way.

  10. flyingrodent said,

    (Entirely free-form ramble about Israel/Palestine by me follows, because I’m in the mood)

    Oh for God’s sake.

    Look, when one of the sharpest men on Earth publicly disagrees with you, you should at least take a second to have a think about whether he might be right.

    If you then decide he’s wrong, well, fair enough! But let’s note the rapidity of the zero-thought-to-shouting-about-god-knows-what that’s gone on here, and learn some lessons. The “You are a disabled wonko, suck Israeli programmer cock in gratitude” meme should be a special warning, I think.

    And on the “Oh no, why must folk single out Israel, boo-hoo” stuff – we really have to be pretty blunt that there are few other countries except for Israel on the planet that get massive financial, military and intellectual backing for their huge human rights violations.

    It’s plainly offensive that that the “OMG, why must you single out” argument continues while Israel is getting three billion dollars’ worth of armaments every year, that it then uses to repress the fuck out of fellow human beings.

    I mean, when the Iranians start hanging gay people, you don’t get Norman Geras telling people that it’s hang-people-or-death-for-all-Iranians. When the Burmese crack down on their people, you don’t get Times leaders explaining how killing fuck out of Burmese folk is a matter of national survival.

    And yet, every single time Israel starts killing motherfuckers right, left and centre for reasons that don’t make that much sense, we’re bombarded with bullshit about a “right to self-defence” that isn’t in dispute, under any legal system, anywhere on Earth.

    And seriously, this is before we get to the point about the Israelis being militarily, diplomatically and economically inviolable, thanks to their 100% would-you-like-some-free-warplanes support from the Americans.

    How about, the Palestinians get the warplanes, and the Israelis get the food parcels?

    I think we’d find out exactly how unfair it all is, then.

    The whole thing is a fucking joke, if you ask me. There is no Israel-Palestine question. The only question is, how quickly can the Americans deliver the Israelis’ maximal goals?

    The answer is – within fifteen years, everybody knows that’s what’s going to happen, and anyone who objects is boned.

    Everything else is mere details.

    *I have to note here that all of these statements are vulnerable to the pronouncements of a single idiot, as are most political sentiments.

    (Sorry for the freeform rant, but I felt like it).

    • Roy Shani said,

      “Look, when one of the sharpest men on Earth publicly disagrees with you, you should at least take a second to have a think about whether he might be right.”

      What exactly did he say that merits consideration and reflection (that we haven’t heard before countless of times)?

  11. Modernity's Ghost said,

    Stephen Hawking can do whatever he pleases.

    Obviously if people apply some scientific reason to this question, they might ask why boycott one particular country and not others, with, incredibly poor human-rights records?

    Still, Hawking is free to visit the Chinese dictatorship any time he pleases.

    He can even exchanged pleasantries with the racist leadership of Iran, etc

    But the lingering feeling is that he took the path of least resistance, bearing in mind that BDSers are quite vociferous and aggressive.

    They brook no refusal.

    Knowing what his would-be allies in the West are like, I can understand his decision in this matter.

  12. flyingrodent said,

    Obviously if people apply some scientific reason to this question, they might ask why boycott one particular country and not others, with, incredibly poor human-rights records? …But the lingering feeling is that he took the path of least resistance, bearing in mind that BDSers are quite vociferous and aggressive… Knowing what his would-be allies in the West are like, I can understand his decision in this matter.

    I put it to you, Mod, that Professor Hawking may have come to his decision without being hectored into it, on some kind of principle, and that there’s no particular reason to think otherwise.

    Further, I note that the world boycotted South Africa even though there were worse things going on in, say, Cambodia at the time… And the world’s various intellectuals and partisans didn’t rise up in anger to accuse the boycotters of (sniff, sniff) suspiciously racist behaviour. Because everyone would’ve laughed and said, what, are you mental, wouldn’t they? Much as they should do in 2013.

    Now, I’m not about to defend every single person who advocates BDS – many are dodgy and weird but then, Israel/Palestine is a deeply attractive topic to innumerable wacky weirdos, in support of both sides.

    But it should be obvious to all that the critical point on I/P is that the US is going to back Israel all the way and totally immunise it from negative consequences, until it has achieved its maximal goals and claimed as much of the region as it can and if that further immiserates the Palestinians well, fuck ‘em.

    There are two options for people who dislike that situation, as human beings who vaguely believe in justice probably should, and they’re a) complain about it on the internet or in the press or, b) a boycott.

    I’ve said before that I think boycotts are counterproductive and unpleasant, in most circumstances. Nonetheless, there really is nothing else left to do, at this point and while I’m hardly going to wave flags for BDS, I see few alternatives.

  13. Jim Denham said,

    Just on Rodent’s point about how “when one of the sharpest men on Earth publicly disagrees with you, you should at least take a second to have a think about whether he might be right.”

    Fair enough, but as Rodent himself seems to recognise, Hawking’s undoubtedly powerful scientific intellect does not, ipso facto, make him an authority on political or even human rights issues.

    During WW2, Einstein urged FDR to investigate the properties of uranium and transuranics, in order to produce a nuclear weapon before Germany did. He may have been right or wrong about that, but his standing as the (then) world’s most eminent scientist gave his views no special moral or political authority and I think (but may be wrong) that he later came to regret his part in creating the bomb.

    As to whether or not Hawking was pressurised into changing his mind about attending the conference, see today’s Graun: ‘Chomsky told Hawking to boycott conference in Israel, activists reveal.’

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/10/noam-chomsky-stephen-hawking-israel-boycott

    Now, the fact that Hawking appears to have changed his mind as a result of lobbying is not in my opinion a reason to criticise either Hawking or the lobbyists. Political lobbying is an activity that many of us engage in much of the time. But it does make a nonsense of then idea that Hawking arrived at his decision through dispassionate private thought and analysis, or as Rodent would have it: “I put it to you, Mod, that Professor Hawking may have come to his decision without being hectored into it, on some kind of principle, and that there’s no particular reason to think otherwise.”

  14. Rosie said,

    Hawking is an icon of a kind of mystical braininess and an intellect that roams among the stars. People notoriously bought his book on Time without reading it because only physicists understand it. I once saw A Winter’s Tale where the character Hawking appeared in a wheelchair as Time. Problem was, he talked like Hawking so you couldn’t make out a word. I know that Hawking apprehends things that I haven’t the faintest clue about but that doesn’t mean that I trust his judgement on political matters.

    It’s similar to Dawkins. He knows loads about evolutionary biology. But he joined that absurd letter writing campaign that the Guardian started, urging Americans not to vote for Bush – in Ohio, I think. You and I and your Aunt Muriel know that the Yanks would say, Piss off Limeys, as they did, and the Bush vote in fact increased more in proportion at the targeted areas than elsewhere. It was political naivety.

    • flyingrodent said,

      I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Hawking must be right, because he’s very good at physics.

      I did mean, however, that it would probably be a good idea to stop and have a bit of a think about what he’s said, before immediately jamming him into a box marked “People we don’t like because of our pre-existing political partisanship”.

      • Roy Shani said,

        Well,
        You would have a valid point there (regarding “a bit of a think about what he’s said” argument) if Hawking have actually said something of substance.
        But the fact is that he didn’t say anything new or remarkable. he said the usual BDS talking points which we heard countless of times..
        As remarkable as Hawking is, he joined the loud crowd of BDSers and was absorbed by it without leaving any new or ingenious mark.

        So what exactly should I stop and think about?

      • Rosie said,

        So if Hawking had called for military intervention in Iraq or Libya, which you were violently opposed to, would you have reconsidered the case for intervention or your opinion of Hawking’s political and moral judgement?

  15. holy joe said,

    “Chomsky told Hawking to boycott conference in Israel, activists reveal.’
    It says :”helped”, not “told”.

  16. holy joe said,

    I can’t afford the print edition, I’m not that middle class. Still, if you want to run with the trope of an all powerful lobby with tentacles everywhere capable of silencing all dissent and intimidating even the most famous intellectual in the world, go ahead, knock yourself out.

  17. Jim Denham said,

    Go on Joe and for once shell out for the print edition. My quote is, word for word, the headline they use. The rest of your latest comment is, presumably, intended to be clever, but comes over as just plain…silly.

    A political “lobby” is not usually an “all powerful” force with “tentacles everywhere capable of silencing all dissent” (except in the fevered imaginations of conspiracy theorists), and I most certainly have not suggested that the BDS/Bricup crowd, bullying, dishonest and self-righteous as they often are, are “all powerful” or have “tentacles.”

  18. holy joe said,

    Well it isn’t really any different from what Modernity said and nobody would call him silly, would they… wait, maybe that’s a bad example. I do find it amusing that y’all are so perplexed at Hawking’s turning down the chance to attend a bunfight of zero academic value held to celebrate a war criminal’s birthday that you have to think up all kinds of dark reasons which might lie behind his decision… smearing him as an anti-Semite would seem to be a bridge too far even for you, so he must be feeble minded or easily swayed… incidentally here\s a good take on it all which probably reflects the Rodent’s position – why is it that real Zionists are often so much better on these questions than Trotskyists pretending to be Zionists? http://972mag.com/a-zionist-defense-of-hawking/70743/

  19. Jim Denham said,

    ” you have to think up all kinds of dark reasons which might lie behind his decision… smearing him as an anti-Semite would seem to be a bridge too far even for you, so he must be feeble minded or easily swayed”

    What to silly person you are, Joe. Read what the Graun says . You have the link above, even though they’ve changed the headline on the online version.

    And where does anyone say he’s “feeble minded or easily swayed”? That’s quite different from suggesting that he came under considerable pressure to change his mind.

    And who’s even suggested calling him an “anti-Semite”? No-one here has even raised it as a possibility…except you.

  20. holy joe said,

    If Guardian headlines are to be given such Talmudic importance, I suppose it depends on whether you interpret “told” as meaning “advised” or “instructed” – while I can imagine Chomsky could issue instructions to David Barsamian or the Medialens crew, I doubt if he can lay down the law to Hawking. And why do you not think it is possible that Hawking is an anti-Semite? He refuses to visit democratic Israel, while he is happy to fellate Ahmadinajad and the Chinese Stalinist dictators… doesn’t it make you, you know, suspicious?

  21. Geras is a Tory said,

    Shiraz socialist really are a bunch of Zionist cock suckers.

  22. Jim Denham said,

    “Shiraz socialist really are a bunch of Zionist cock suckers”: a crushing denunciation to which we have no riposte, except to invite you round for a session, “is a Tory”.

  23. flyingrodent said,

    the fact is that he didn’t say anything new or remarkable. he said the usual BDS talking points which we heard countless of times… So what exactly should I stop and think about?

    This is a perfect example of what I was talking about when I mentioned “jamming (people) into a box marked “People we don’t like because of our pre-existing political partisanship”.

    • Roy Shani said,

      Flyingrodent,
      Your argument is a non sequitur.. You said that when a person with the stature of Hawking says something, we should at least stop and think about what he said before deciding our judgment upon him. Then you accused those who did not stop and think (supposedly) as automatically lumping him in a pre-conceived imaginary box just because we hold a certain political tendency.

      But the fact of the matter is he didn’t say something that is different or unique then countless of BDSers who came before him. I had years to analyze and think about what he said because what he said has been said over and over and over again.
      If, for example, Hawking was to support the concept of “Pro Life” and he would put forth the same arguments that we hear from the Pro Life crowd for decades, are you seriously suggesting that you would stop and reconsider those arguments, arguments which you were confronting for years?
      Or maybe you are claiming that because of Hawking’s standing in the science community we should re-consider old arguments about politics and morality, arguments that we decided countless of times to be problematic (to say the least). I think that is not what you mean because you also said “I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Hawking must be right, because he’s very good at physics”

      So unless you could point me to an innovative argument by Hawking, or even not innovative but one that transcends the same tired and superficial arguments of the BDSers, what exactly are you suggesting I should stop and think about?

  24. flyingrodent said,

    Well, I thought it was obvious – when a man of Hawking’s towering stature adopts a position you’ve previously decided is wholly wrong, you should probably pause for a moment to consider whether it’s you, rather than he, who has the wrong end of the stick.

    And as I said before, if you decide it’s him that’s wrong well, fair enough! Knock yourself out.

    Now, all those people who responded to Hawking by wailing and ordering him to be grateful for supposedly-Israeli technology that helps him cope with his terrible physical condition. How much stopping and thinking went on there, do we think?

    unless you could point me to an innovative argument by Hawking, or even not innovative but one that transcends the same tired and superficial arguments of the BDSers…

    To repeat, I’m not a fan of boycotts or sanctions, as I don’t think they’re helpful. Nonetheless, I also think that the situation is now so extreme and so undeniable that this type of thing is more or less the only form of influence people can hope to exert on it, so I can at least see where they’re coming from.

    But I do like the idea that Hawking should’ve come up with some new and innovative case for boycotts, in order to impress those who are reflexively and unconditionally opposed to boycotts. It’s fun.

    • Roy Shani said,

      Flyingrodent,
      You oversimplified what I wrote. Yes, I was complaining about the lack of innovation about Hawking’s move, but I was also complaining about the lack of substance and the superficiality of the whole affair.

      Hawking did not provide an informed reasoning for his move. He didn’t put forth arguments for the boycott. He did not address the complexities of the conflict or the complexities of an academic boycott. He said “Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster” but did not spend a word to explain why didn’t he used the platform which had been given to him to say just that instead of boycotting.
      He only threw his support for the boycott, joining a plethora of public figures that are joining the boycott as an easy and lazy move to win the popular sympathy of the boycott crowd, and to win the “badge” of a humane rights supporter.
      What about actually doing something? Actually thinking about the issues at hand and offering insights which could contribute towards solving the conflict? What about actually spending time to get familiar with the different initiatives to solve the conflict and deciding for yourself what is the most effective approach? Nah… it is too time consuming. Instead he read some emails from Palestinians who advised him to boycott and he just took their word for it.
      And this should make me “stop and reevaluate my positions”? why?

      Hawking approach is not written in stone. As much as my personal feelings towards Chomsky or Barghouti are negative, I do respect their positions, because it is based on being familiar with the conflict, with its history, it is based on real hard thought and tackling the complexities of the conflict. They offer grounded reasoning which I, regardless of my position, can examine for myself, tackle for myself, find weakness and strengths in their arguments, and finally accept or reject some or all. But at the very least I can engage. So when Chomsky speaks, I listen and deal with what he says.
      But Hawking did not use his brilliant mind to offer us reasoned argument for his decision. By the way, this is not the first time. His positions on the war in Iraq are just as superficial. So maybe Hawking standing as a scientist has nothing to do with his ability to understand Politics, morality, sociology and more.
      I seriously doubt that Hawking would dare to put his support on a problematic, complex and controversial issue in his field of study without giving well researched, well argumented and well-structured reason for doing so.

      The fact of the matter is that I have no idea how much Hawking really knows about the I/P conflict, how much of what he knows is accurate, how much time did he spend dealing with the issue, how much time did he spend weighing the pro and cons of an academic boycott and so on. So re-thinking about my positions just because he threw his name in and said something obtuse about it, in my opinion is unwise and a waste of my time.

      So to conclude, you are welcomed to re-think about everything you wish whenever a public figure thinks that he can use his name to support something and everyone would just line up with his position, without him putting an effort to really understand the issue and offer an intelligent reasoning behind it.
      I for one won’t bother. We have enough superficiality in the world.

  25. flyingrodent said,

    So if Hawking had called for military intervention in Iraq or Libya, which you were violently opposed to, would you have reconsidered the case for intervention or your opinion of Hawking’s political and moral judgement?

    Yes. I doubt it would’ve swayed me in the slightest, but I would at least give it some thought.

    I don’t expect anyone in the OMG-Boycotts-Horror camp to be any more convinced by Hawking than I would be by your example, but a bit of re-evaluation never hurts.

  26. Jim Denham said,

    “but a bit of re-evaluation never hurts”

    …let me add that to my list of all-time banal and meaningless platitudes.

  27. Modernity's Ghost said,

    I made a very simple point that BDSers are quite vociferous.

    There is evidence to back that up.

    I’ve made the point that BSDers are aggressive and brook no dissent.

    There is evidence for that too.

    I just wish that some of the “critics” of Israel were amenable to evidence on the conduct of BDSers.

    Thus, it is perfectly understandable that Hawkins might not want to go against the BSDers as they might have made his life hell, whereas insulting the Israeli government has few significant consequences.

    Hawkins took the line of least resistance, in my view.

    In short, my argument is based on evidence and the conclusion is reasonable. I wish the “critics” of Israel here could say the same!

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