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.

Photo: Getty
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Emily Thornberry: Why I'm sticking with Jeremy Corbyn

Labour's shadow foreign secretary has explained to her local party why she will vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election.

 

I hope you are all enjoying a good Bank Holiday weekend.

Since returning from holiday, I have been catching up with many of your messages asking me how I am planning to vote in the current Labour leadership election, and giving me your views.

I thought I should write to the membership of Islington South and Finsbury and explain my thinking.

As many of you know, it is my view that our response to the Brexit vote should not have been to turn in on ourselves. At a time of grave constitutional and economic challenge for our country, it was incumbent on us to rise to this threat and ensure that the Labour party should defend the interests of our communities and not allow the Tories a free hand.

I believed that this was a time for people to unite and think of the country, not to turn inwards and indulge in a coup attempt against a leader elected with an overwhelming mandate less than a year ago.

It will therefore come as no surprise to my local party to learn that, having remained totally loyal to the democratically-elected leader of our party since his election, I will stay loyal to Jeremy during the contest that has arisen from that coup, and he will have my vote in this election.

I have not agreed with everything Jeremy has said and done since becoming the Labour leader last year, but where I have had disagreements with him, I have always found him and his team willing to get around a table, listen, reflect and discuss a way forward. And as long as that is possible, I would never consider walking away from that table.

But for those members who may disagree with that decision, and the way I will be voting in this election, let me explain my more fundamental reasons for doing so.

When I first started campaigning to become your MP in 2004, we were suffering as a party because our hierarchy and leadership were totally detached from the party’s membership. This not only meant that members across the country felt alienated, demoralised and ignored, but more importantly their collective understanding of what people’s fears and aspirations were, learnt from listening to the public and knocking on doors, was being deliberately overlooked.

What had begun as the necessary modernisation of the Labour party in 1994, showing how a belief in a dynamic market economy could be combined with the drive for social justice and the transformation of public services, had become distorted into an agenda where the test of every new policy from the leadership was how much it would antagonise the Labour party’s core membership.

Tuition fees, the attempt to marketise the NHS, the careless disregard of long cherished civil liberties and the drive to war in Iraq were being imposed by a leadership who convinced themselves that, if the members hated it, they were doing something right.

When I walked through the voting lobbies against the attempt to impose 90 days’ detention without charge in 2005, Tom Watson –then one of Tony Blair’s whips – growled at me that I was a ‘traitor’. But a traitor to who?

Not to the country, when this was a draconian measure designed to look tough on terrorism, but one that would undermine the cohesion of communities like ours, alienate people and actually undermine our security. My members knew this and I remember when Compass polled party members – at my instigation – it was clear this was the national view as well.

So who exactly was I betraying? Just a party hierarchy and a party leadership who were trying to shore up their relationship with the right-wing press by ‘taking on’ their members, and trying to out-flank the Tories on security.

When Jeremy stood for the leadership after the disaster of the 2015 election, the difference was palpable. Here finally was a candidate interested in listening to the party’s members, reflecting their views, and promising to represent them. As a result, hundreds of thousands more joined, including huge numbers who had left because of Iraq, tuition fees, and other issues.

Here we are now, less than a year after Jeremy’s overwhelming victory, and the party hierarchy – through decisions of the National Executive Committee - is attempting to overturn that result, quash Jeremy’s mandate, and put the party’s members back in their box. And they are doing so in the most naked way.

I was disgusted to see the attempts to try to stop Jeremy from getting on the ballot. And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, hundreds of thousands of fully paid-up Labour party members were excluded from taking part in the election, having been told the opposite when they joined. Third, your membership fees were spent on securing that decision through the courts. And then lastly, registered supporters, who had been told they could be involved in the Leadership election, were then told that they must increase their donation to £25 within two days to remain eligible for a vote.

Indeed, you should probably know that even to put on the social events we have held for local members in the last two months – occasions that have been really important to welcome in our new members – we have been forced to seek permission for each event from the party hierarchy.

In short, some people have done their level best to deny the party’s full membership a fair and equal vote in this contest, or even the chance to make their voices heard. Instead of welcoming the enthusiasm of our new members, instead of celebrating the strength of our mass membership, they have been behaving as if it is something to be afraid of.

As someone who spent nearly 30 years as a grass roots activist before becoming your MP, I cannot accept this.

But even more important, as someone who believes our party and our country are best served when our elected representatives and the party membership work together, I fundamentally disagree with this attempt to take us back to the years when our members were deliberately antagonised, alienated and ignored by the people who they helped to put in power.

Islington South and Finsbury Labour Party has a proud reputation for being one of the great campaigning local parties and our election results in the past 11 years have shown what can be done when the membership and its elected representatives work together with respect.

We now have the potential to replicate this success across the country, creating a national activist base that could be unlike anything else in modern British politics, taking our message into the street and onto the doorstep, and turning the activism of thousands into the support of millions.

I do not understand why anyone in the Labour party would want to turn their back on that membership, in the way that the party hierarchy have tried to do this summer.

Instead, it is time to unite as a party – the membership and the elected representatives alike – and together take our fight into the only contest that matters: getting this dreadful Tory government out of office, and punishing them for the mess into which they have plunged our country.

That is what we should have spent our summer doing – uniting, facing outwards, taking on the Tories, and energising the public to our cause – and that is again why I regret so much the chaos and distraction that this attempted coup against Jeremy has caused.

So my plea to all members, and one I will make to my fellow MPs, is this: whatever the outcome of this leadership election, we should stop the internal division, unite as a party, and take the fight to the Tories together.

And I would like my local party to know that I will remain totally loyal to the leader of our party, whoever he shall be.

In the meantime, you all know that I have a very full in-tray with constituency business, and with representing the party on Brexit, foreign affairs, and – together with Clive Lewis – our future defence policies.

I will be concentrating on this vital work in the run up to 24 September, rather than this unnecessary and divisive leadership contest. And when that is over, I hope we can all start focusing on those bigger issues on which Britain needs an effective, united opposition.

I know that not everyone will agree with the conclusions I have reached, but I am completely confident that in Islington South and Finsbury, we will continue to debate this and other issues in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs.