Professor Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott Israel’s President’s Conference left a nasty taste in the mouth. It wasn’t only the fact that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was able to claim a significant victory in their campaign to delegitimize Israel. It was also the way in which the story developed throughout the day in such a way as to snatch what looked like a slam dunk exposé of both the BDS movement and The Guardian.
For an Israel advocate, the contradictory information flying around the Internet appeared to present an opportunity to expose anti-Israel bias and misinformation. Thanks to a University of Cambridge statement claiming that Hawking had canceled his trip due to health reasons and not due to political motivations, both The Guardian, which had published the story first, and the boycott movement appeared to be promoting disinformation.
Here was a perfect opportunity to hit back at Israel’s detractors. Indeed, some people were quick off the mark to publish a take-down of those involved in what looked like a false anti-Israel slur.
However, only a few hours later, it was our side that was backing down following the retraction of the University of Cambridge’s original statement and a confirmation that Hawking was, in fact, a boycotter.
HonestReporting prides itself on being among the fastest to respond to media bias issues. We also pride ourselves in holding the media to account when it comes to basic source checking and standards of evidence. After all, how many times has Israel been falsely accused of various crimes and misdemeanors before the facts have been established?
In the case of Hawking, we decided to pause and take stock of all of the conflicting reports floating around. Something just didn’t seem right and just occasionally, a journalist may actually be correct. So we watched and we waited and experienced the same anger and disappointment that so many people felt when it became clear that a much admired public figure had actually thrown in his lot with the boycotters.
Despite this, the balagan still exposed some glaring issues with how this story came to be. Matthew Kalman, the journalist who broke the story in The Guardian explains in the Daily Beast the events of the day and describes his feelings looking at the contradictory University of Cambridge statement:
Twelve hours earlier, I had been told a very different version by officials at the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP). They had published a brief note on Tuesday evening with, they said, the approval of Hawking’s personal assistant announcing his withdrawal from the fifth Facing Tomorrow Presidential Conference. They told me that he had written a brief letter to the Israeli president changing his mind and making his reasons clear in terms that BRICUP described as “his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there.”
Let’s remind ourselves that the BDS movement has been exposed on numerous occasions making phony claims of victory. Clearly there was a risk involved in publishing a story that was being promoted by a pro-boycott organization. It was only later that the journalist actually had his written physical proof in hand to back up the story.
And is it by chance that it was The Guardian who ran with the story? While many newspapers may have run with the story, it’s not a surprise that it was The Guardian that decided to do so. Of course, any story that could damage Israel is an attractive one for a newspaper with a visceral dislike bordering on the obsessive when it comes to reporting on the country. In this case, while the reporting of the story was certainly fair and balanced, the outcome was less than rosy for Israel.
Of course, the story then spread throughout the mainstream media although one aspect caught my eye in the Daily Express, which ran the headline:
Outrage over disgusting ‘cripple Stephen Hawking’ jokes after he joins boycott of Israel
However justified we may feel in our anger towards Hawking, there is no justification for attacking him in this offensive and tasteless manner. Having said that, I am still amazed that a mainstream media outlet could consider the rantings of an unrepresentative few as worthy of a story in itself.
Would the Daily Express care to address the regular torrent of offensive remarks that appear in the comments sections of any Israel-related content online, some of which crosses the line into outright anti-Semitism?
I thought not.
This incident should also serve as a wake up call. Hawking had previously visited Israel (and the Palestinian territories) without any problem. So what has changed?
Presumably, the boycotters were able to effectively get Hawking to change his mind. But it’s not only Hawking who has adopted a different policy. Palestinian academics may, in the past, have found it acceptable for visitors to “balance” trips to Jerusalem with a trip to Ramallah. Not anymore. With a blanket policy of boycott in effect on the part of the Palestinians, Israel will have to learn that invitations to academics and others may not meet with a positive response and prepare to better argue its case.
Ultimately, while Stephen Hawking has given the BDS movement a shot in the arm, we must not forget that this anti-Israel movement’s failures far outweigh its successes. Clearly, for an intelligent man, Hawking was unable to recognize the real nature of BDS – not a tool to pressure Israel into making concessions for peace but a weapon to bring about Israel’s demise.
We should redouble our efforts to ensure that this should be the story that the media report the next time BDS breaks out into the mainstream.