So Stephen Hawking isn’t coming to Israel for the Israeli President’s Conference.
In itself, it is not a great loss – one less person in what has become an annual star studded line up of famous personalities attending the annual meeting. The President’s Conference, “Facing Tomorrow,” brings together leading world figures in what has become a show of support for Israel, through the acknowledgement of the individual, Shimon Peres, and his status as a world figure.
Whether Hawking, who has visited Israel on a number of previous occasions, was totally aware of the cynical way in which pressure was brought upon him to rescind his acceptance of the invitation, is not clear. But he is not the first international figure who has been subject to a flood of letters, emails and petitions from the pro-BDS supporters to cut off links with Israel as part of their mistaken and erroneous campaign.
Mistaken because the few people and institutions who practice boycott remain in the minority, as world figures, leading scientists, singers and artists continue to visit Israel in large numbers. Most of them do not have any particular love or hate of Israel and do not necessarily support the continued Israeli control of the West Bank and the denial of Palestinian rights. But they are equally aware that the acquiescence to political pressure not to accept such invitations is tantamount to a policy of discrimination – which has little to do with the rights of the oppressed and a great deal to do with the delegitimization of a country simply because it exists.
Erroneous, because BDS speaks in the name of Palestinian rights and equality, a cause for which many of us strongly believe in and are active on behalf of, but whose policies achieve exactly the opposite.
By targeting scientists, academics and universities, they are effectively targeting one of the few spaces where Israeli-Palestinian collaboration and cooperation takes place, albeit in a much diminished form in recent years.
By targeting the community of artists and performers, they are targeting audiences, many of whom reject continued Occupation, and whose art can be an important means through which political protest is disseminated.
Ironically, BDS and their supporters strengthen the right wing through their activities by hardening mainstream opinion in Israel along the lines of “the whole world is against us.”
Equally, the activities of the extremist right-wing groups add fuel to the BDS arguments, as our bastion of democracy appears to be less and less democratic by the day.
The right-wing groups succeed in creating an image of an intolerant Israel to the outside world. This image is then taken up by our detractors to show that Israel is not, as it professes daily, a strong democracy, that it does not respect the rights of those who disagree with government policy and that it seeks to silence all those who would hold dissenting opinions.
The right wing campaign to silence voices within Israel is as well funded and as sophisticated as is the pro-BDS campaign, reaching out through mass mailings, pressure on donors and supporters and, most recently, with links to a right wing government which is only too happy to provide institutional support and backing to these anti-democratic groups.
Neither has the government recognition of the Ariel College helped us to persuade those who were sitting on the fence before deciding whether to add their voices to the pro-boycott sentiments. The fact that it is no longer possible to distinguish between the formal Institutes of Higher Education in Israel proper, with those in the Occupied Territories, has made it all the more difficult to justify the anti-boycott argument on the grounds that such activities will harm bona fide scientific institutes within the sovereign State of Israel.
And, in their warped reasoning, the right wing groups such as Im Tirtzu, Israel Academic Monitor, Isracampus and NGO Monitor, then have the audacity to accuse the left wing in Israel for being responsible for the growing pro-boycott activities. It has become convenient for them to exploit the campaign to delegitimize Israel as a means of justifying their activities against the left wing, liberal and pro-peace groups within the country.
They fail to recognize that it is their activities, in the name of a misplaced patriotism, which is causing more damage and harm to the State of Israel than any of the groups which they attack on a regular basis as being “unpatriotic.”
Their funders, mostly Diaspora Jews in North America and the UK, are not citizens of the State of Israel. Their money could be put to much more productive use in supporting such worthy causes as hospitals, welfare projects and universities, than in promoting the flames of internal dissent from the far away comfort of their Diaspora homes.
The two diametrically opposed lobbies have one thing in common. They both make it even more difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to work together, to promote collaboration and cooperation amongst the moderates, and to move, one small step at a time, towards some form of renewed dialogue.
We are often reminded of the famous, perhaps mythical words, of David Ben-Gurion following the declaration of the British White paper in 1939, limiting further Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when the opening of the gates could have saved many tens of thousands from the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion is reputed as saying that we will fight the White Paper as though there was no Third Reich, and we will fight Germany (by being part of the allied forces) as though there was no White Paper.
Those of us who still believe that there is some hope for renewed Israeli-Palestinian dialogue out of our love and concern for this country but out of our opposition to the policies which deny the same political rights to others, need to adopt this dual message. We must fight BDS as though there was no Occupation, but equally we must oppose the growing Macarthyism of the right wing in Israel as though there was no BDS. We cannot allow either of them to cash in on the stupidity of the other in weakening the mutual desire of the vast majority of both Israelis and Palestinians for a better future for both peoples.
Hawking has made the headline but he remains one of a small minority. The majority of world scientists, performers and public figures continue to come to Israel because they understand that science, arts and literature are above the mundane political struggles of groups who promote the language of hatred and delegitimization.
Instead of focusing on Hawking, we should now switch our attention to welcoming the many world figures who will attend the Israeli President’s Conference, a president who is himself the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and who could not be a less likely target for the mistaken and erroneous activities of the BDS.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and is active in promoting scientific cooperation between the UK and Israel. The views expressed are his alone.