Stephen Hawking’s decision to heed the call of Palestinian academics to refuse to lend legitimacy to Israel and its complicit institutions until Palestinian self-determination is realized is having a tremendous impact among Palestinians, especially in the academic community. The principled, direct, and unambiguous decision communicated by Hawkins to the organizers of the high-profile, public relations Israeli conference at which the president of the state is to be honored in June is unprecedented for a global scholar of his stature, and is deeply appreciated by Palestinians.
The Palestinian civil society call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions because of their multi-faceted complicity in upholding and legitimizing Israel’s regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid has caught the imagination of increasing numbers of academics around the world. Hawking’s decision is precedent-setting in the sense that it will set an example for many other academics who have, for various reasons, not found it easy to declare their support of the boycott openly. Advocates of any sort of pressure on the Israeli state, inside and outside the academy, have had to face charges of anti-Semitism, stifling academic freedom, and dragging politics into academia. While the efforts of the Israel lobby in the western academy are being daily challenged by more and more academics and students, Hawking’s example is bound to further the legitimacy of boycott as a means to achieve justice for Palestinians. We believe the day is coming sooner than we expected when isolating Israel and its complicit institutions through diverse forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) becomes more of a mainstream practice. The South African anti-apartheid struggle, in which boycott played a prominent role, inspires Palestinians and gives hope that sustained international solidarity can hasten the end of oppression.
Hawking’s outstanding example will also encourage associations of academics to take courageous actions in isolating Israel’s complicit academic institutions in the international academy. We are certain that we will see more initiatives such as the boycott resolution approved unanimously just two months ago by the Association for Asian American Studies in the United States. It is worth highlighting the clarity of the language in this other precedent-setting development (in the USA in particular); the AAAS has resolved to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” and to support “the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.” The latter point highlights the fact that advocating for Palestine and supporting boycott is still not easy given the intimidating atmosphere created in the global academy and the media by the Israel lobby. Yet, it is a matter of time when the determination of conscientious academics to challenge attempts to stifle advocacy for Palestinian rights and boycott in particular will prevail.
In this regard, it will likely be only a matter of time before the premier academic union in the UK, the UCU, resumes its distinguished tradition of fighting oppression in relation to Palestine. The dedicated UCU activists, who have been heartened by the recent legal judgment in favor of the UCU against charges of “institutional anti-Semitism” due to the union’s deliberations on BDS at its annual conferences, will now find it easier to argue for holding Israel accountable to universal standards.
Apologists for Israel and detractors of boycott have received a significant setback with Hawking’s decision to respect the Palestinian boycott call. The tide is turning.