Professor Hawking - a bad decision taken by a wise man

The news that Professor Stephen Hawking had withdrawn as a keynote speaker at the June 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference in support of the Boycott movement has appeared to legitimise this contentious means of trying to achieve peace in what is an extremely complex region. Professor Hawking’s motives might have been genuine but, unfortunately, the method he has chosen will certainly not help achieve his stated aim.

All those dedicated to peace – and I count the Jewish community among those – have always argued that boycotts are unhelpful, damaging and immoral. Hawking’s possibly-well-meaning actions have strengthened Academic Boycott campaigners like BRICUP and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, whose aims are not driven by a desire for peace or a resolution to the conflict, which is surely wanted by all of those who call themselves true friends of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The boycott movement and PSC support the creation of a single Palestinian-majority state and the end of Israel’s existence. Norman Finkelstein, the pro-Palestinian author and activist, launched a blistering attack on the boycott movementtelling an interviewer: "Whilst they support the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, they do not support Israel right to exist”.

As a community we stand opposed to the boycotters and haters, not only because we don’t support boycotts but also because we recognise both people’s right to self-determination. We see no contradiction with being pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, with two independent states living peacefully side by side.

In 2006, Professor Hawking attended a physics conference in the Jewish-Arab peace village of Neve Shalom under the auspices of Tel Aviv University. Neve Shalom is a town known for its tolerance and co-existence. Encouraging this type of approach where both sides come together and are engaged in a spirit of academia is where efforts should be concentrated. Boycotts however greatly damage the peace process by snubbing such attempts of conciliation.

What’s most surprising is that Professor Hawking would boycott an event hosted by President Shimon Peres, a man who epitomises peace. He has been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in the Oslo Accords and in June 2012 was awarded the highest US award in the realm of peace by President Barack Obama, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1996 President Peres founded The Peres Center for Peace, which is Israel’s leading non-profit organisation promoting peace building between Israel and its Arab neighbors, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Professor Hawking’s boycott is not only an insult to President Peres who at the age of 90 has, and still does exert himself fully into achieving a lasting peace for all, but to all of those on both sides who have fought and yearned for peace.

Indeed, the Israeli Presidential Conference is a place for innovation and forward thinking, reflected in the name of this year’s conference entitled, Facing Tomorrow. It will explore the world of politics, economics, environment and education. This is an arena in the Middle East for progress and exchange of ideas that better the world. Moreover, there will be a large Palestinian delegation at the Conference. This is the sort of positive activity that should be promoted, encouraged and supported.

Even more disappointing is Hawking’s inconsistency. He was comfortable visiting both Iran and China recently, two countries who are unanimously known for their terrible track record in regards to human rights abuses, yet he will now not visit Israel, a democracy where he would be free to criticize any parts of Government policy that he disagrees with. Can you imagine Prof. Hawking having this freedom at an Iranian Presidential Conference? By only applying his strict moral standard to Israel, he plays into the hands of the boycotters whose real aim is to remove Israel altogether.

Read carefully the words of one of the founding members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Omar Barghouti, (who happens to be studying for his Masters in Tel Aviv University) – he was quoted in the Guardian as saying; "Palestinians deeply appreciate Stephen Hawking's support for an academic boycott of Israel…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”. The academic peace camp is one of the most active and vocal, thus  supporting the academic boycott of Israel is illogical and harmful for peace.

Boycotts demonise and polarise, increasing hatred and reducing understanding. When peace finally comes – and we pray that it does - it will not be because of the actions of the boycott movement, but in spite of it. The divisive campaign and politics of the BDS movement, who openly admit their pressure on Hawking, only serves to widen the gap between communities.