Sorry, Stephen Hawking, but a boycott of Israel isn't the answer

A general boycott plays into the hands of Israel's hard-right leaders. Instead, we should punish firms and institutions that operate in the Occupied Territories.

If the aim was to hit Israel where it hurts, Stephen Hawking’s withdrawal from the Israeli Presidential Conference couldn’t have been better planned. Hawking had accepted an invitation to the gathering of world leaders and scholars in June, but announced yesterday he was dropping out in solidarity with Palestinian academics who have called for a boycott of Israel. Israel’s self-image as a full member of the community of nations rests to a large extent on its global prominence in science and technology. This move, by the world’s most famous scientist, punches a hole in that cherished idea, reminding Israel of its other identity: that of a semi-pariah state, synonymous with occupation and war.

So why, as a fervent supporter of Palestinian rights, can’t I bring myself to support Hawking’s decision? In a decade-and-a-half of visits to Israel/Palestine, I have seen at first-hand the effects of Israel’s cruel occupation. I have heard West Bank residents describe the despair caused by Israel's system of closures, roadblocks and curfews, and seen the degrading conditions of refugee camps like Dheisheh and Jenin. I have stood alongside Palestinians protesting the loss of their lands to settlements and the 'separation fence'. And, writing about the conflict, I have likened Israel to a junkie with a "deadly addiction" to Palestinian land.

Nor is my opposition to Hawking’s move based on the usual argument trotted out against the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Partisans of Israel often charge BDS with inconsistency, claiming it’s hypocritical to single out Israel and not other countries who abuse human rights. But this won’t wash. When it comes to moral acts, the question isn’t whether we are consistent but whether we have a chance of achieving some good. When activists led a boycott of South Africa during the apartheid years, they didn’t wait until their movement could boast a consistent platform on every conceivable issue. And the clear message they sent the South African regime – that its practices were intolerable in the modern world – helped bring about its downfall.

The problem with the BDS campaign is that the message it sends Israel is anything but clear – and, as a result, it risks being counterproductive. In his letter to the conference’s organisers, Hawking wrote about his concerns about "prospects for a peace settlement", saying that "the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster". But Israel’s supporters claim that the BDS movement has little to do with the occupation, peace, and government policy, and is instead intended to bring into question the Jewish state’s right to exist.

It’s true that Israel’s supporters throw the word 'delegitimisation' around to portray fair-minded criticism of Israel as invidious and sinister. But when it comes to BDS, the fact is that they have a point. The BDS movement doesn’t have a single leadership with stated goals, but most of the biggest groups within it make little secret of their preferred outcome to the conflict. Instead of a two-state solution, they support a single, Palestinian-majority state that would mean the end of Israel’s existence. Don’t take my word for it. Norman Finkelstein, the heroic pro-Palestinian author and activist, recently launched a blistering attack on the BDS movement, telling an interviewer: "[The Israelis] say 'They’re not talking about rights. They want to destroy Israel.' And in fact, I think they’re right. . . . There’s a large segment of the movement that wants to eliminate Israel."

Stephen Hawking is a brave and principled man, and there’s no doubt his gesture was intended to send Israel a signal about the need for peace and an end to its oppression of Palestinians. But, in doing so, he has added his considerable weight to a movement whose aims are in many ways the opposite of his message of peace and reconciliation. It’s significant that the website of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, one of the biggest UK supporters of BDS, reproduced Hawking’s letter of withdrawal – but clipped the part which referred to a "peace settlement".

But how important is all this? If moves like Hawking’s help Israel understand that its policies will not be tolerated by the rest of the world, does it matter if they were orchestrated by a medley of groups harbouring a fantastical goal that has no chance of being realised? The most important thing, surely, is to bring pressure on Israel to change course, and end the forty-six-year-old occupation.

But here’s the thing: whatever the intentions of figures like Hawking, what Israel hears from BDS is the voices questioning its right to exist. This plays into the narrative of its hard-right leaders, who tell their people: "The world will never accept us, and we must rely on our own strength to survive. That is why we must never compromise or show vulnerability." It’s for this reason that Noam Chomsky – hardly a Zionist stooge – has said that a general boycott of Israel is "a gift to Israeli hardliners and their American supporters".

Instead of boycotting Israel, we should boycott firms and institutions that operate in the Occupied Territories. That means shunning brands like Ahava, which manufactures its products in the West Bank settlement of Mitze Shalem. For academics, it means refusing to have dealings with Ariel University, located in one of Israel’s biggest settlements across the Green Line. And it means backing EU plans to clearly label settlement products – and then pressuring supermarkets to remove these goods from their shelves.

In this way, we can send Israel a clear and bold message. We can say: "We support your right to live in peace and security. But we reject the occupation of a single inch of Palestinian soil, the demolition of single Palestinian home, the spilling of a single drop of innocent blood."

This isn’t about pulling our punches, or sending Israel a softer message. It’s about refusing to give its leaders a reason not to hear us.

Stephen Hawking with then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images.

Matt Hill has written on the Middle East for the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. You can follow him on Twitter @mattrowlandhill.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.