Forget the civil war in Syria; the big news from the Middle East today seems to be the decision by Stephen Hawking, the world’s most famous living physicist, to boycott a conference in Israel as a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians.

From the Israelis’ point of view, this is a story they should want to have die as quickly as possible. Beating up on Stephen Hawking is not the way to win friends; as Chemi Shalev puts it in Haaretz, “Not only is a campaign against Hawking bound for defeat, as any PR expert will tell you, but its fallout will be compounded the more that the protests are aimed at his physical disabilities.”

But some people just can’t help themselves. The conference chairman described the boycott as “outrageous and improper”, and said that “The imposition of a boycott is incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.”

As a description of an organised blanket boycott of Israeli institutions and academics (of the sort some Palestinians have encouraged) that criticism would make sense. But so far there is no evidence that Hawking supports any such sweeping tactic, and one person deciding not to go to a conference is not an “imposition” of anything. In any case, the conference concerned is only loosely speaking an academic conference; it’s sponsored by Israel’s president, and is described by Noam Sheizaf as “an annual celebration of the Israeli business, political and military elites, whose purpose is unclear at best.”

Mind you, it wasn’t just the Israelis who were making themselves look silly; Cambridge University, Hawking’s employer, originally claimed that Hawking had declined to attend for health reasons, later having to apologise for the “confusion”.

Once you’ve read up on that, you can turn a little closer to home and read the statement by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, which has been threatened with disaffiliation from the Jewish Community Council of Victoria for having organised a campaign to boycott products from the Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

The view from the Israeli right, which at least some in the JCCV appear to endorse, is that this is indistinguishable from a boycott of Israel itself: it’s fundamental to Likud’s position that the settlements should be treated as an integral part of Israel.

But of course the reality is that the settlements are on occupied territory, in violation of the express terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention. They are also, in purely practical terms, an obstacle to any peace settlement, since their relentless growth restricts the land available for a Palestinian state.

The counter-argument is often made that there are much more serious obstacles to Mid-East peace (such as Palestinian intransigence of one sort of another), so harping on the settlements is naive at best or at worst suggests bad faith and even anti-Semitism.

But this misses the point. Whether or not the settlements are the most serious obstacle, it is beyond dispute that they are an obstacle, and one that the Israeli government could address immediately (at least to the extent of stopping their expansion). Other obstacles may raise other difficulties, but this particular obstacle only exists because the Israeli government has chosen to let it exist: a choice that calls into question its commitment to peace.

A publicity campaign, such as that by the AJDS, to focus public opinion on that fact seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable tactic. It doesn’t amount to being anti-Israel (much less anti-Jewish) unless you think that peace is somehow contrary to Israel’s interests.

Reports on Monday indicated that an unofficial freeze on new settlement construction has been in place since Barack Obama’s visit to Israel in March. If true, that would at least be a step forward in the peace process – one that might not have been taken without the sort of pressure that international campaigns can apply.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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