Boycott of Israel is small for now, but gets higher profile with Hawking

Many celebrities have ignored boycott appeals, such as Elton John, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Paul McCartney. Some academics say that the impact of the movement has been overstated.

Eric Reed/Cedars-Sinai/AP/File
British cosmologist Stephen Hawking gives a talk titled 'A Brief History of Mine,' to workers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, last month. Mr. Hawking's status as an international bestselling author of books on physics and cosmology makes him one of the most prominent figures to join the boycott movement.

Stephen Hawking’s refusal of an invitation to a star-studded Israeli conference has handed pro-Palestinian activists a major victory in the campaign to isolate the Jewish state, but Israeli experts and officials are divided on whether it marks a tipping point or a one-time public relations coup.

Hawking ducked out of the annual Israeli Presidential Conference, which will draw the likes of Barbara Streisand and former President Bill Clinton this year to fete the 90th birthday of President Shimon PeresIsrael’s best known dove. Mr. Hawking’s status as an international bestselling author of books on physics and cosmology makes him one of the most prominent figures to join the boycott movement.

"He is a mega-celeb. Few people in the world don’t know who he is," says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat and director general of the foreign ministry who believes Mr. Hawking’s statement will resonate with other intellectuals.  

Mr. Liel believes that is likely to give momentum to the cultural boycott of Israel – a decade-long effort to isolate Israeli academics and universities, and pressure prominent artists not to visit. That said, the efforts to isolate Israel economically through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions – known as BDS – have not caught much traction. Says Mr. Liel, "Look, [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu is in China" to drum up commercial ties. 

Mr. Hawking joins cultural figures like rock star Roger Waters and jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, who backed out of a show in Israel last year after most of the tickets had been sold.    

Nevertheless, a longer list has ignored those appeals, such as Elton John, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Paul McCartney. Indeed, some academics say that the impact of the boycott movement has been overstated.

Bar Ilan University Political Science professor Jonathan Rhynhold, who traveled to the UK eight years ago to defeat a motion at a British university to sever ties with his school, insists that academic ties between the United Kingdom and Israel have expanded over the last decade in spite of the boycott.

He believes that the core of the boycott movement represents a small minority of public opinion because it opposes Israel’s existence. However, the movement is able to reach the mainstream of international sentiment because of the overwhelming opposition to Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank. (Indeed, the government reportedly advanced plans this week to build about 300 new housing units in the settlement of Beit El.)

"Israel’s real legitimacy problem is in the West Bank. The issue of settlements is indefensible," he says. "Therefore when we expand settlements, we give more air to the BDS to get people like Hawking."

Many Israelis see in the boycott movement a dangerous threat to delegitimize Israel’s very existence abroad. Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief, said last year efforts to turn Israel into a pariah state are a strategic threat to the country on the level of missiles and rockets.

Ben Dror Yemini, a prominent centrist columnist at the Maariv newspaper, wrote that the Hawking boycott decision should be a "wake up call" to the government. "Intellectual terrorism works."

Asked to explain how Israel could counter such a campaign in a phone interview, Mr. Yemini says that the government is mistakenly content with overwhelmingly pro-Israel approval ratings in the US.

"There is a campaign and they are beating us," he says. "The most important thing are the elites. What is happening in academia and the media. There we are failing. Israel doesn’t look like it's in the game."

The University of Cambridge professor informed the office of the Israeli President on Friday that he had reconsidered "based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott," according to a statement released by the head of media relations Tim Holt.

The campaign has also polarized the political environment in Israel, as right-wing politicians have assailed dovish critics of the settlements as one in the same as the pro-Palestinian boycott movement. Two years ago, Israel's parliament passed a law enabling the filing of civil lawsuits against individuals who call for boycotts of settlement products, and sanctions for companies and non-profits that participate in boycotts. Mr. Hawking’s move is likely to strengthen that tendency, some say.

"Netanyahu wants us all to believe that Israel is threatened by BDS and 'delegitimization,'" tweeted Anshel Pfeffer, a reporter for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "Thank you Stephen Hawking for helping him."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Boycott of Israel is small for now, but gets higher profile with Hawking
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today