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by John Haylett
 Anyone harbouring doubts over the effect of boycotting Israel should reconsider in the wake of responses to Stephen Hawking’s decision not to attend a conference there. Hawking, who has previously visited Israel on four occasions, had originally intended to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, noting that “this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank.”

However, the Cambridge professor of cosmology received a number of emails from Palestinian colleagues.

“They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster,” he reported.

Israel Maimon, who chairs the Israeli Presidential Conference, declared Hawking’s decision “outrageous and wrong.”

He added that the use of an academic boycott against Israel was “outrageous and improper, particularly for those to whom the spirit of liberty is the basis of the human and academic mission.

“Israel is a democracy in which everyone can express their opinion, whatever it may be. A boycott decision is incompatible with open democratic discourse.”

Maimon’s reliance on the old chestnut of Israel being the only democracy in the region ignores the reality that oppression of the Palestinian people and denial of their national rights are not internal Israeli questions.

They date back 65 years to the establishment of Israel, the creation of the Palestnian refugee problem and the subsequent further occupation of Palestinian land in 1967 that is being systematically colonised by Jewish settlers.

Swiss-Israeli academic Carlo Strenger, who holds the psychology chair at Tel Aviv University, has written an open letter to Hawking urging him to rethink his position.

After confiding that he too has some criticisms of Israel, he lurches through an orgy of whataboutery – what about China over Tibet? What about Russia over Chechnya? What about the US over Guantanamo? – before arguing that it is “pragmatically unwise” to single out Israel’s academia.

“Israel’s academia is largely liberal in its outlook and many academics here have opposed Israel’s settlement policies for decades,” he declares.

Many brave Israeli academics have indeed spoken out, but the university system itself sustains the illegal occupation of the West Bank in a variety of ways. It is part of the problem.

Accepting that “Israel, like any other country, can be criticised,” Strenger insists that “such criticism should not be based on shrill moralism and simplistic binary thinking.”

What is lacking in the viewpoints offered by Strenger and Maimon is consideration of the question posed by Canadian Jewish blogger Mira Sucharov, who incidentally supports a boycott of West Bank settlement produce but opposes similar treatment of Israel.

“If you are contemptuous of Hawking’s decision to boycott, what alternative to ending the occupation are you proposing?” she asks.

“Or do you agree that living under the military occupation of a foreign government, as West Bank Palestinians do, is an acceptable, just, ethical, moral, tenable, sustainable (name your term) way to live?”

The responses of Strenger and Maimon are angry but restrained, in contrast to some identified by Israeli daily paper Haaretz contributor Bradley Burston, who highlights two nauseating contributions worthy of note – both from people of substance in Israeli society.

Professor Steven Plaut, who teaches business finance and economics at the University of Haifa, referred obliquely to the 1985 murder by Palestinian militants of Jewish-American wheelchair-user Leon Klinghoffer on an Italian cruise ship.

“I have a suggestion. I suggest that the people of Israel send Hawking for a free trip on the Achille Lauro,” this laugh-a-minute academic wrote.

Not to be outdone, lawyer Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of the Shurat Hadin-Israel Law Centre Organisation happened to notice that Hawking is almost entirely paralysed and communicates through a speech-generating device.

“His whole computer-based communication system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team. I suggest that if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet,” was Darshan-Leitner’s little rib-tickler.

Burston located these examples within a growing tendency of the “smartly dressed thugs of the right” to disrupt serious debate “by booing and delegitimising a two-state solution as being anti-Israel.”

Such people also exist in government, as, for example, Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, who urged annexation of the entire West Bank last year.

“Regardless of the world’s opposition, it’s time to do in Judea and Samaria what we did in Jerusalem and the Golan,” he told a provocative conference in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.

What he says is different from what Benjamin Netanyahu says, but it fits entirely with what the Israeli prime minister does.

His approval this week of a further 300 homes being built in the illegal Beit El colony just days after the Peace Now group voiced its belief in an unofficial freeze on colonisation lays bare the zionist project.

Winning international support for the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign is essential to isolate Tel Aviv and encourage an honourable settlement with the Palestinians.

John Haylett is political editor of the Morning Star

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