Washington — In the battle between supporters of Israel and those calling for a boycott of the Jewish state success is measured to a great extent by symbolic victories. And nothing makes for more of a symbolic victory than getting the most prominent living scientist to boycott Israel’s most prestigious gathering.
Such was the impact of British physicist Stephen Hawking’s surprise withdrawal from Israel’s Presidential Conference at the request of pro-Palestinian activists.
For supporters of the BDS movement, who call for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel, Hawking’s decision was cause for unprecedented celebration. Not only is Hawking a world-leading scientist who succeeded in making theoretical physics and cosmology accessible to laymen, he also demonstrated, in his struggle with a debilitating nervous system disease, the strength of mind over body. The event Hawking chose to boycott — an international gathering celebrating the 90th birthday of Israel’s most well-known leader, Shimon Peres — added to the BDS movement’s triumph.
“This is a fantastic move, a sort of watershed moment,” BDS activist Sami Hermez said in a May 10 interview on Al Jazeera TV. “When someone like that boycotts Israel, you have the possibility of a snowball effect and it speaks to the growing nature of the BDS movement.”
Supporters of Israel did not dispute the significance of Hawking joining the BDS camp, but they did question the significance of the move for future attempts to boycott Israel. Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, called the decision “a PR gift to the movement,” but noted at the same time that putting Hawking’s move in perspective would require acknowledging that “for every high-profile person who acquiesces to those demanding a boycott, there are dozens of others who do not succumb to this pressure.”
Reaction in Israel and around the world to Hawking’s move helped enforce the notion that Hawking was more than another name on the list of celebrities refusing to visit Israel. The chairman of the Presidential Conference, Israel Maimon, responded angrily, calling the decision “outrageous and improper.” Maimon added that the imposition of such a boycott is “incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.” The British press, which covered the Hawking affair closely, devoted lengthy articles to the decision, voicing opinions both favoring the boycott and opposing it. In the American media, usually known to lean more in favor of Israel than the European press does, the mainstream Boston Globe stood out by publishing an editorial that labeled the Israeli response an “overreaction” and called Hawking’s move a “reasonable way to express one’s political views.”