COSMOLOGIST Stephen Hawking’s decision last week to withdraw from a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres out of solidarity with Palestinians marks one of the biggest victories yet for the decade old effort to impose a cultural boycott against Israel.
But its immediate impact seems to be to cause the Israeli right to retrench rather than to spark soul-searching.
Soon after Mr Hawking’s decision last week became known, the Israeli government approved 300 new housing units for settlers at Beit El in the West Bank, near Ramallah. And in the East Jerusalem area envisioned as the future capital of a Palestinian state, Israel continues to steadily transform the Arab neighbourhood of Silwan into the settler dominated City of David. It is a microcosm of larger processes underway in which a real or imagined Jewish past trumps the Palestinian present and deprives the Palestinians of a future state. And Hawking’s act, by itself, will not change that.
With the continued de facto support of the Obama administration for Israel as it carries out these policies, the acquiescence of Britain and other countries, and the divisions within Palestinian politics, it is unclear how the boycott movement can make real change.
One may agree or disagree with Mr Hawking’s action but you would be hard pressed to dismiss it as insignificant.
“This is a big name person perceived as very rational, who doesn’t take political stances,” said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. “This will push forward the boycott movement on certain kinds of events.”
“Hawking is a reminder that even Shimon Peres with his PR campaign to beautify the ugly face of Israel has limits,” he added.
On the right, there is fury at Mr Hawking that has turned ugly. Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the NGO Shurat HaDin, maintained it was “hypocritical” for Mr. Hawking to boycott Israel and at the same time benefit from Israeli technology. “His whole computer based communication system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team,” she said in a statement. “I suggest that if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet.”
But Yaron Ezrachi, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University, says the boycott effort is not a public relations problem. He stresses that it is gaining momentum because of the continuation of the “cruel” occupation and “the refusal of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ilk to engage in peace talks.”
However, Mr Ezrachi thinks Mr Hawking is hurting Israeli academia, a bastion of the left, with “a wholesale excommunication that puts Netanyahu and his virulent critics like myself in the same box.”
How much more momentum the boycott movement takes on will have much to do with the policies of Mr Netanyahu himself. If the status quo continues it can only intensify.
The argument that Western intellectuals should engage Israel and criticise it rather than boycott it will continue to have weight as long as a two state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians seems possible. “If the international community thinks the window is closed, all the rules will change,” predicted Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israeli peace activist.
• Ben Lynfield reports for The Scotsman from Jerusalem.