Is Steven Hawking’s Decision To Boycott an Israeli Conference Boon to BDS?

Israel Supporters Note Significance But Question Impact

Game Changer? British astrophysicist Steven Hawking endorsed the boycott of Israel by refusing to attend a academic conference there. Does his celebrity status provide a crucial new boost to movement?
Getty Images
Game Changer? British astrophysicist Steven Hawking endorsed the boycott of Israel by refusing to attend a academic conference there. Does his celebrity status provide a crucial new boost to movement?

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 17, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Hawking announced his decision on May 9, after it was initially reported a day earlier in the British newspaper The Guardian. In a letter to organizers, Hawking explained that he made the decision following appeals from Palestinian academics to withdraw. “Had I attended,” he wrote in the letter, “I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”

The BDS movement began to organize in 2005, modeled after the global movement to boycott South Africa during the Apartheid regime.

The extent of the BDS movement’s success has been in dispute. Efforts to enroll major companies, stockholders and unions in pulling their investments from Israel or from firms doing business with Israel failed to gain traction, and there has been little success in limiting the sale of Israeli products, especially in the United States.

The movement did succeed, however, in convincing some high-profile artists, including Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and Snoop Dogg, to drop Israel from their concert tour schedules. Other performing artists decided in past years to cancel planned shows in Israel without providing any explanation or tying their decision openly to the Israeli– Palestinian conflict.

Academic circles have not been immune to boycott attempts, though practical moves to withdraw from conferences in Israel or reject Israeli researchers were rare and occurred mostly in Europe. Hawking’s move could change that balance, adding celebrity power to the academic and scientific boycott in a way that could make intellectual interactions between Israelis and their colleagues around the world more difficult in years to come.

Itamar Rabinovich, former president of Tel Aviv University, called the academic boycott movement “an incremental process” that has been “gathering volume.” He noted that Hawking’s withdrawal and the attention it drew should be seen as “jumping to a new level” in the attempts to isolate Israeli academic work. “It resonates and it is being used by those who believe in it to give the movement more m omentum,” said Rabinovich, who also served in the past as Israel’s ambassador to Washington.

Rabinovich characterized Hawking’s decision as only a boost to the BDS movement, not a game changer. The impact of anti-Israeli sentiments in the academic world is already noticeable, he said, and could increase in the future. In humanities and social studies, he said, “if you want to get invited to an important conference or to spend a sabbatical in a leading university, you better be politically correct on issues relating to Israel, or else you won’t have a chance.”

In the scientific field, Rabinovich said, such pressure is not yet noticed but could emerge in coming years, making it more difficult for Israeli scientists to receive research grants or to find colleagues who will work together on projects supported by binational funds.

Activists monitoring the BDS movement, such as Segal, were puzzled by the route Hawking took to express his criticism of Israel. Refusing to take part in activities relating directly to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is more common in academic circles, he said, as is the boycott of goods from settlements, or refusing to visit individuals involved in Jewish life in the occupied territories. Hawking’s move was more extreme, Segal said, especially for a scientist who has not been vocal on these issues before.

“His decision was a kind of denial of Israel’s existence,” Segal said of the withdrawal from the Presidential Conference. “That’s what makes it all the more disturbing.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.