I found Hannah Weisfeld’s recent post, ‘Hawking’s Israel boycott in its UK context’ curiously elusive. The first paragraph mostly consists of a series of factual statements – with no clue as to whether the author approves of his decision to pull out of the Presidential Conference or not. The exception is the very opening sentence in which Weisfeld introduces Hawking in admiring, warm – perhaps even gushing – terms, while still withholding judgment on his boycott stance.
Stephen Hawking, one of the UK’s most brilliant minds, and a man revered by much of the British population for his indefatigable ability to navigate the challenges that life has thrown at him, announced yesterday that he would not be attending the 5th Presidential Conference in Israel this coming June.
In the second paragraph Weisfeld appears to condemn the notion of an academic boycott pretty unequivocally. However she also starts to map out a kind of sliding scale, making it clear that some boycotts are worse than others. I don’t actually disagree with her suggestion that academic boycotts are more objectionable than commercial ones, or that the Moti Cristal case was particularly appalling, even by the usual standards of academic boycott. But I feel the Israeli wine is sacrificed a bit too readily, and that the Cristal case is almost being used to make less extreme examples of academic boycott more acceptable, more palatable.
Weisfeld goes on to insist that Hawking is not one of the really bad boycotters, because he does not deny Israel’s right to exist, and then goes into gush mode again, in order to assert that he can certainly distinguish between political extremism and political protest:
It would be something of an insult to his amazing mind to suggest he lacks those critical faculties.
I don’t see why it would be an insult. He is a brilliant scientist, not a brilliant scholar of history or politics – and even if he were, that wouldn’t mean we all had to agree with his moral or political views.
Next Weisfeld moves to the UCU case, describing the damning way in which that case was dismissed. I perhaps couldn’t blame Weisfeld for assuming the case was a very bad one (although obviously I’d disagree with her) based on a final ruling whose tone certainly shocked me, but I am in fact not completely sure what she thought of the verdict. I think her point is more to argue that opponents of the boycott need to change their tactics on purely pragmatic grounds.
It seems we need some new ground rules if we are to win the case for Israel in the public arena.
First, it is clear that we need to challenge the assumption that anyone who calls for, or supports, any form of boycott is beyond the pale. We can debate, disagree with tactics, call out anti-Semitism when it is clearly there, but we have to accept that people have a right to employ a set of tools we do not agree with. It is that simple.
Although this isn’t simply a straw man argument – I’m sure there are people who lump all boycotters together – there’s something frustrating to me about her rhetoric. For example, she agrees that it is reasonable to ‘call out anti-Semitism when it is clearly there’. But one might think a campaign had antisemitic effects or causes without necessarily thinking all who supported it were, personally, antisemitic. And the UCU tribunal, in part, was very much about calling out antisemitism when it was clearly there – as in the case of Bongani Masuku. Moving the goal posts in order to focus on the most glaring cases of antisemitism and admit defeat on softer examples seems to be Weisfeld’s strategy – but I’m not sure that works.
Weisfeld goes on remind the reader that the Palestinian cause is ‘the cause célèbre of our time.’
It might well be the case that there is something sinister about those who have been involved in turning it into the zeitgeist of our times. But no amount of hasbarah, campaigning, showing the “positive contribution of Israel in the world” is going to change that.
I think perhaps I agree that arguments invoking Israel’s contribution to, say, technology aren’t the best answer to boycotters, rather as I don’t think appeals to Hawking’s status as a scientist can be used to lend him moral authority. However if the boycott campaign has sinister elements, then they should be exposed – that’s not hasbara.
Here’s her conclusion.
John Humphrys, who is probably Britain’s most well known radio voice and who presents the inimitable Today Programme on Radio 4, asked this morning: “Isn’t it the case that the boycott has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of Palestinian people?” If he is right, and the world is watching, they should also see serious efforts on the part of Israel and those who count themselves as Israel’s supporters worldwide, doing all that is in their power to change the situation. Surely that would be the best reaction of supporters of Israel in the UK to the latest boycott drama?
Even if the boycott has succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of the Palestinian people that doesn’t make it right in itself as a strategy, and (although there’s no excuse for some of the more vicious comments Hawking has attracted) opponents of the boycott should continue to try to make their voices heard. Weisfeld seems to shift her position from one in which the boycott is seen as a painful issue – ‘the stakes are incredibly high’ as she puts it towards the beginning of her piece – to a lost cause, to be swiftly abandoned if anything is to be salvaged for Israel and its supporters. Going back to John Humphreys’ point – in my case the biggest impact of the boycott was in fact not to draw my attention to the plight of the Palestinian people (though I’ve learnt more about that too) but to make me more alert to the ways antisemitism manifests itself.