A Zionist defense of Hawking

I wish there was a kinder, gentler way than acts of ostracism to get Israel to end the occupation, but those ways have failed terribly.  

I would not join a BDS protest; I’m a “two-stater” who believes Israel should remain a Jewish state because the alternatives would be worse, who believes Israel’s “original sin” is the occupation, not Zionism, and so I don’t think I’d really feel at home at your average BDS demonstration. There seems to be way too much loathing for everything about Israel in the movement – which is not to say everyone in the movement thinks that way; I know that’s not true. But the main thrust and tone of the BDS campaign is such that there’s no way I can identify with it.

But when I read Wednesday that Stephen Hawking was boycotting the President’s Conference, I was glad. He doesn’t hate Israel; he’s been here four times. In his letter canceling his participation, he wrote that he’d originally planned to come because “this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank. … Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.” What Hawking hates is the occupation, not Israel, and he believes that by striking a blow against Israel’s rule over the Palestinians, he is helping not only the Palestinians but Israel as well. I think he’s right, and what’s more, I think he succeeded in a seismic way.

Israel and its advocates can wave off boycotts by some college students and left-wing professors, even by a few well-known pop musicians, but not by a giant and hero of the Western world like Hawking. What he’s done is a threat to the status quo – and except for the potential that lies in the Palestinians’ UN strategy, (specifically their plan to take the occupation to The Hague), Hawking’s boycott is the only such threat that’s appeared in a very, very long time.

I wish there were kinder, gentler ways than such acts of ostracism to get Israel to end its 46-year dictatorship over the Palestinians. Ideally, of course, the public would elect a government that would do it. Failing that, its best friend, America, would prod the public and its leaders with “tough love.” Failing that, the Palestinians would rally the world against the occupation through diplomacy and nonviolent protest.

Like a lot of other people, I put my hope in one after another of the above tactics, and one after another, they have so far come to nothing.

So, as they say, desperate times require desperate measures, and for the cause of Israeli justice and Palestinian freedom, that means ostracizing Israel, including by such means as boycotting the President’s Conference.

At this point, at least, I can’t lay down a precise rule on which means would be fair and which ones foul, but I know, for instance, that I would be sickened at the sight of a shopper in a foreign supermarket refusing to buy Bamba; that’s pathological, that’s treating Israel as if it’s got the cooties. Likewise, I wouldn’t want Hawking or anyone else to refuse to visit Israel privately. I loathe the idea of a hands-off policy toward everything and everybody Israeli.

But if Madonna were to announce that she won’t play here again until the occupation is over, I would cheer. What I’m in favor of above all is a psychological campaign aimed at Israelis and their leaders – declarations by the democratic world, backed by action, that it will ostracize Israel until it stops denying the Palestinians their independence. That is the one thing that can succeed, the one thing that can scare Israelis into a radical change of course, and when a boycott can advance that goal without indulging in Israel-hatred – which the BDS campaign in the West has largely failed to do – then it’s a good thing. Harsh medicine, but ultimately, excuse the expression, good for the Jews as well as the Palestinians.

The strongest argument against punishing Israel for the occupation, in any way, is that Israel shouldn’t be singled out, that there are other countries doing much worse things than what we do to the Palestinians, so why not punish them? I have nothing against boycotting all sorts of countries, but the problem with that question is that it looks at a boycott of Israel, of any sort, as punishment and nothing else – and even while much of the BDS movement intends it that way, that is not necessarily the effect. A boycott is, of course, punishment, but if Israel learns the right lesson from it – that the occupation is wrong and must be ended – then it’s a punishment that will save this country.

Again, if Israel would reverse the status quo of its own volition, through elections, or do it in response to pressure from its friends like the U.S. and European governments, then I’d oppose punishing it by any means. But the fact is that there’s no rational hope of this happening; the right wing owns Israeli politics, while the U.S., European Union and the other democratic states, for a variety of reasons, won’t force Israel’s hand. The kinder, gentler ways haven’t worked on this country, so it’s either acts of ostracism or occupation forever, and given those two choices, I’d say Israel is best served by the former.

In retrospect, the sanctions on South Africa were a gift to that country. If Israel ends its long tyranny over the Palestinians, such conscientious boycotts as that of Stephen Hawking will be remembered for having been a gift to this one.

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