First, let’s take a deep breath. Stephen Hawking’s decision to join the academic boycott of Israel may be infuriating, but it’s not the end of the world. On balance, I’ll prefer to remember it as a week in which Facebook appeared ready to buy its third Israeli company and the Washington Post declared Israel “a major player in the Mediterranean, and perhaps even the European, natural gas market.”
Hawking’s decision makes news, after all, because it’s not the norm, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement continues to struggle to find similar marquee recruits. Israel’s improving trade relations with Turkey, for example, suggest that, contrary to popular opinion, the whole world is not against us. The black hole world, maybe, but not the whole world.
Still, Hawking’s decision to cancel a planned visit to Israel is maddening. His critics say that by joining the boycott he has thrown in with anti-Semites, or at the very least undermined the spirit of academic inquiry. “It is always dismaying to see intelligent men and women commit themselves to a tactic that relies on stymieing dialogue and curbing the free exchange of ideas,” writes Liel Leibovitz.
I don’t have any reason to believe that the famed physicist is an anti-Semite. And if he is truly pro-Palestinian, that’s certainly his right. I’m not offended that Hawking is refusing to travel to a country whose policies he doesn’t like. And if the goal of the boycotters were to pressure Israel to freeze settlements, or return to the negotiating table, or ease travel restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank, even some left-wing Israelis would at least understand, if not support, his decision.
But the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, which is taking credit for Hawking’s about-face, is not a “peace” group — it is an anti-Zionist group that does not believe in the legitimacy of Israel in any form. Its stated mission is to “oppose the continued illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands with its concomitant breaches of international conventions of human rights.” The key phrase there is “Palestinian lands,” a vague designation that doesn’t restrict itself to the West Bank or Gaza, but can include any inch of historic Palestine.
BRICUP is not interested in negotiations, a fair division of the land, just and secure borders, or self-determination for Jews and Palestinians. I’ve spent time on their site and can’t find any reference to a future that includes Israel. Nor do they suggest what Israel would have to do, except disappear, for the boycott to be lifted. Unlike supporters of the South Africa boycott (to which they compare themselves), BRICUP, like many BDS groups, offers no vision of what Israel needs to do to return to the world’s good graces. It’s not just that they are trying to hold Israel hostage to a one-sided, ahistorical, context-free, and almost cartoonish portrayal of the conflict. It is a hostage situation with no list of demands.
BRICUP represents an all-or-nothing approach that has kept Palestinians stateless for decades longer than they needed to be. BDS fosters the illusion that as long as they keep saying no, Palestinians can have it all, when what they really need is a friend willing to say to them, Make a deal. Settle for less. And get on with your lives.
According to The Guardian, “Hawking also made it clear that if he had gone [to Israel] he would have used the occasion to criticize Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.” Which, on balance, would have been the much better choice. He wouldn’t have been the first foreign dignitary to do so. And he might have learned something from the responses, pro and con. He’s a brilliant guy. Who knows — maybe if he had spoken to Israelis and Palestinians, he could have found a formula that would bring them back to the peace table. Instead, he joined the geopolitical equivalent of the Flat Earth Society.
* * *
Last Saturday night in Newark, there was a wonderful moment in the history of black-Jewish relations, and I’m not sure the participants even realized it.
The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was at NJPAC for its annual residency and performed a series of works by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. More than 20 Ailey dancers, wearing black suits, white shirts, and black fedoras, sat on folding chairs while the P.A. played a recording of the Passover song, “Echad Mi Yodea” (“Who Knows One?”), set to a wild, percussive beat by the Israeli band The Tractor’s Revenge. For each of the 13 Jewish motifs listed in the song (12 tribes, 10 commandments, five books of Torah, etc.), the mostly African-American dancers performed a corresponding, albeit abstract, movement, always winding up back in their chairs.
If you knew the lyrics, the fedoras turned the men and women on stage into hasidim, and the half-circle of dancers into the coolest, craziest seder you’ve ever seen. If you didn’t know the song, it was just a wonderful, sexy dance that left the audience howling in joy and laughter. Leave it to an Israeli to get two sometimes distant communities grooving to the same beat.