The movement to use peaceful, economic pressure to encourage the Israeli government to halt its illegal military occupation and construction of settlements in the West Bank is gaining momentum once again after renowned physicist Stephen Hawking stated he would boycott a conference in Israel to send a message to the government.
This week, the Boston Globe’s editorial board injected its voice into the argument, applauding Hawking for his actions and highlighting the merits of a peaceful way to bring attention to the issue and to pressure the Israeli government.
The Globe’s editorial came on the heels of Hawking’s announcement to boycott Israel’s Presidential Conference, a meeting of scholars, politicians and other high-profile figures. More than 5,000 people from around the world will be in attendance.
While Hawking originally agreed to attend the conference, he reversed his acceptance after pressure from Palestinian academics.
“A letter was sent on Friday to the Israeli president’s office from Stephen Hawking regarding his decision not to attend the Presidential Conference, based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott,” a spokesperson from Hawking’s Cambridge University told CNN.
Hawking was respecting the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS), a global solidarity action that calls on student groups, businesses, organizations and individuals to use the power of the dollar to persuade Israel to halt Palestinian occupation.
Hawking’s move comes a month after students at UC Berkeley voted in favor of a BDS resolution, despite its board of regents’ past claims that it would not carry through with the student senate request until the U.S. government “declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide.”
U.S. companies, too, have been wary of hopping on the BDS bandwagon, as U.S. Department of Commerce anti-boycott laws could result in penalties. Violation of the Export Administration Act (EAA) could specifically result in a $50,000 fine or a fine five times the value of the exports in question.
That hasn’t stopped the BDS movement, however, from calling on U.S. companies to take a stand. In February, BDS issued a public statement to New Balance and InterContinental Hotel Group to drop sponsorship of the Jerusalem marathon.
In March, Vermont residents lobbied the state’s Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company to stand up against its products being sold in illegal settlements in Palestine.
“Most everybody knows that Ben and Jerry’s makes premium ice cream and champions ‘peace’ and ‘love.’ What they don’t know is that this socially responsible business and strong supporter of Occupy Wall Street is making ice cream in Israel and selling it in illegal settlements in Occupied Palestine,” a BDS press release states.
Facing the wall
Hawking was met with criticism by those who saw his move as disrespectful, including Conference chair Israel Maimon, who claimed Hawking’s actions were disrespectful and short-sighted.
“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,” Maimon said in a statement. He went on to claim that this boycott limited the democratic dialogue allowed in Israel.
In a letter to the conference committee, Hawking acknowledged the possible benefits of open dialogue, claiming that is why he initially agreed to attend, but ultimately said his boycott was in solidarity with his Palestinian colleagues.
“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,” he said in the letter. “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.”
Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned political philosopher who has long spoken against Israeli occupation, also joined in encouraging Hawking to boycott the conference, claiming he was surprised by Hawking’s initial acceptance of the conference invitation.
Applause in the U.S.?
While criticism remains, powerful American voices — including the Boston Globe editorial board — saw merit in his actions. The board took the perspective that a nonviolent approach to the Israeli-Palestinian debate is a step in the right direction.
“Observers need not agree with Hawking’s position in order to understand and even respect his choice,” the editorial states. “The movement that Hawking has signed on to aims to place pressure on Israel through peaceful means.”
In Hawking’s case, money isn’t the object, yet his refusal to participate on the basis of principle is helping to spread the word around the world.
“This is a fantastic move,” Sami Hermez, a member of the BDS movement, told Al Jazeera. “Stephen Hawking is a mainstream academic that is very well known amongst the general population … and so when someone like that boycotts Israel, you have the possibility of a snowball effect … it is a real important moment.”
Hermez’s predictions were partially true, at least in relation to the Boston Globe editorial, which created a nationwide conversation on the merits of resistance to Israeli policies.
“Chances for a peaceful solution in Israel and Palestine are remote enough without overreactions like Maimon’s,” the editorial states. “Foreclosing nonviolent avenues to give people a political voice — and maybe bring about an eventual resolution — only makes what is already difficult that much more challenging.”