Stephen Hawking’s Boycott: But: Does the Occupation have any Red Lines at all?–after which: Sanctions?

Mira Sucharov, in Haaretz, has written what seems a reasonable epitome of common sense on “the Hawking affair”:

1. Hawking’s protest – and sometimes, depending on what it is, all of us side with protests – is nonviolent and peaceful, which is the kind, as long as there is going to be a protest, which we all want to support.

2.  Sucharov  “absolutely opposes” academic boycotts, but that this is a “state-sponsored Presidential Conference.  About academic conferences I strongly concur.  Academia is essential for political and cultural communication, sharing, conciliation, and peacemaking, and, as part of this, central to the human-rights and anti-occupation movement.

3. Sucharov opposes any “blanket boycott of Israel.” Again I emphatically agree.

4. But Sucharov throws down the gauntlet: “If you are contemptuous of Hawking’s decision to boycott, what alternative to ending the occupation are you proposing?”

Let me please push further on this last question.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has made popular the talk of “red lines,” for example with reference to Iran. So now, for those contemptuous of Hawking, what would be the “red line” for ending the occupation, after which “staying at home” would be admissible? Even advisable? Even morally somewhat obligatory? After 800,000  settlers? 1.5 million settlers? 2 million ? If the occupation continues 5 more years? 10 years, in 2023? 2033? 2043?

And added to this, the government’s intransigence and above all its rigidity and pettiness even in refusing to accede to the UN upgrade of Palestinian status to non-member statehood, and in the “Levy Report” it sponsored which approves the occupation and settlement expansion, and also the increased West Bank annexationist tendencies– including in the Cabinet.

This is not about Israel as a genuinely democratic country or about its popular will. After all, colonizing is often democratically popular, as when the US colonized the Philippines, and tried to colonize Cuba.

But these were 100 years ago.  And they don’t wash in the 21st century.

But it seems that contemptuous opponents of Hawking don’t have any red lines– that they believe that their popular colonizing democratic government  can do anything it wants—and they may want it to precisely this. That they opposed the Soviet Union occupying Eastern Europe and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq occupying Kuwait, but perhaps support Israel’s policy of occupation.  Only when Israel does it.

I am strongly against sanctions for Israel proper.  A whole country, especially a democratic country, in its whole vast complex and diverse entirety, is so much more than the infinitesimal slice of it that constitutes its administration’s policies.  For starters, for example:

Would we boycott Journalism? For example: The TOI? Haaretz?  +972 Magazine? The New Israel Fund?  B’Tselem?  All the many anti-occupation and pro-human-rights Israeli NGOs?

And would we boycott Israeli academia?  Faculty members?  Liberal faculty members? The essence of academics, both in Israel and over the world, is communication, including conciliation and peacemaking, and there are further benefits to people and the world such as advances in medicine and public health. And an added irony to any boycott would again be that Israeli academia tends to be liberal and part of the larger anti-occupation world.

Although as Mira Sucharov notes–this is not going to be an “academic” but more  a government-sponsored conference.

Still, personally I regret that Hawking has chosen Peres’s conclave to take a stand on, since I do so much respect Peres.

The Times of Israel adds that Palestinian and PA leaders have often gone to President Shimon Peres’s conference.

But I confess I don’t see the relevance of this—or rather I see its relevance in a different way than the TOI may have intended.

An occupied people doesn’t have the maneuverability of influential private citizens of influential foreign countries, like Stephen Hawking in Britain.  Moderate Palestinians may feel so powerless and their lives and those of their families so beholden to Israeli government policies in every way both large and every day – to make their lives and those of their spouses and children either easier or more difficult, may feel rather as though they are cutting off their noses to spite their faces in not going.  But they may hate this humiliating situation as a whole.

And they could easily welcome the stance of influential foreigners, who have nothing at all to lose, to make a stand for them and not go.

A stance like Hawking’s may make them feel less alone in the world – and not quite as powerless and humiliated and beholden.

Above all, again, what is the red line beyond which sanctions do become admissible?  What do those who are contemptuous of Hawking propose to stop the settlement expansion up to, say, a million, and for another, say, 10 or 15 years?

Four further points, to add to the first four beyond Sucharov’s, also deserve attention:

5. Again: the entire country of Israel — like Haaretz and B’Tselem and liberal and anti-occupation and Israeli academia — is a thousandfold times larger and deeper and richer and more diverse than the government itself.  The same is true for all diverse and democratic countries–and most at least diverse and freewheeling nations as well.

6. What would be the red lines, if any, toward which sanctions would become admissible.  After, say, 2 million settlers and 20 more years of occupation.  Or are there just no red lines at all? But the — even if there are red lines, how far do they extend? Haaretz?  B’Tselem?  Liberal academia?  (Whether or not Peres’ conference is considered part of it.)

7. There is a difference between, on the one hand, official state actions like sanctions and, on the other hand, the individual political rights of private citizens—including Martin Luther King’s, calling for marches, demonstrations, and other forms of private protests in the Civil Rights Movement such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Stephen Hawking’s personal freedom and right to exercise his peaceful and nonviolent and democratic rights, far-off in his own democratic country, and, especially poignantly, as one of the few forms of rights of nonviolent democratic exercise of personal conscience and individual protest he is able to exercise from the constraints of a wheel-chair.

8. Last: What do the occupied and increasingly settlement-squeezed Palestinians themselves have as a legitimate and deserved and indeed essential right to a basic say about what is their own plight – it is no one else’s —  under occupation?

This is all a big moral mess. And I don’t claim to have any easy answers.






About the Author
James Adler was born in Kentucky, now works in university libraries, and feels especially and intensely bound up with the fate of the Jewish people in the last hundred years, especially the Shoah, the rise of Israel "out of the ashes," and the accidental and mutually tragic collision with the Palestinians in the early and middle of the 20th century, continuing through today. He is happily married and the father of two teenagers.