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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.