British Physicist Stephen Hawking’s announcement that he would boycott Shimon Peres’s ‘Facing Tomorrow’ conference ruffled feathers among those who believe such actions to be inappropriate and unjust. The conference, held in Jerusalem, brought together a range of public figures to discuss global challenges.

Predictably, some of these individuals described Hawking’s decision as motivated by a desire ‘to mark the average ‘proud Israeli’ as a ‘pariah’’ and to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Some commentators qualified their disapproval, conceding they could sympathize with and perhaps even support a boycott of settlement goods, but that “there is a vast difference between that and a comprehensive boycott of Israel’s president, academics, cultural institutions, and economy.”

Such remonstrations are both misguided and factually inaccurate. By emphasizing a false distinction between the forces occupying Palestinian land and the Israeli state, they deny the complicity of Israeli institutions in facilitating the occupation.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), to which Hawking has given his support, is emphatically not directed at the average Israeli individual or academic. Rather, it promotes the use of boycotts as a tool to pressure Israel’s academic institutions, which incontrovertibly form a crucial part of the state machinery of oppression.

The student-run Right to Education Campaign at Birzeit University in the West Bank has stated its support for Hawking’s decision. The campaign notes that some of the key barriers to equal education imposed on the Palestinians by Israel include “restrictions on movement, unlawful detention of students in Israeli jails without access to education,a lack of control over their own curriculum, and an inability to attract international academics due to visa restrictions”.

In the face of a system that actively seeks to prevent Palestinians from learning their own culture and history, PACBI seeks to compel action based on the universal right to education.

This should be kept in mind when evaluating criticism of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Because pressure is used to achieve change, critics assert that BDS undermines freedom of speech and democratic debate. This is the line taken by Israel Maimon, the Chairman of the Presidential Conference, who stated that Hawking’s decision was against the “spirit of liberty” so vibrant in Israel.

To run with this point and flatly condemn the use of BDS would require a blind acceptance of Maimon’s claim that, “Israel is a democracy in which everyone can express their opinion.” In doing so, the systematic marginalization and silencing of Palestinian citizens of Israel is obscured.

These are not conditions conducive to democratic debate. Unless this gross imbalance of power is acknowledged, Israel will continue to occupy and dispossess the Palestinian people whilst claiming the two sides are equally at fault and responsible for this untenable situation. The fact that the Presidential Conference acts largely as “an annual celebration of the Israeli business, political and military elites”, with a heavy presence of the pro-occupation Right, reinforces this point.

Because frank talk about the conditions imposed on Palestinians within Israel and the Occupied Territory necessarily leads to a questioning of Israel’s democratic credentials, critics of BDS see the movement as a “challenge [to] the very right of the Jewish state to exist as a sovereign political entity”.  Questioning Israel’s democratic credentials as a Jewish state is very different, however, to challenging its right to exist.

In a piece written for the New York Times, Joseph Levine asserted that by defining itself in ethnic, rather than civil, terms Israel is inherently prevented from promoting and representing the identity of all its citizens. This is particularly the case for the 20% of Israelis who are not Jewish and whose rights to self-determination and political expression are violated by such an exclusive categorization.

When this significant non-Jewish minority is prevented from exercising its political rights it is not too great a stretch to see a comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa. The comparison is even more appropriate when one considers the more overt racial discrimination faced by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, who live amid segregated roads, Israeli-only busses, and distinct legal systems for settlers and Palestinians.

When faced with these parallels, commentators have been quick to point out that “in mixed cities like Haifa, Arabs and Jews rub shoulders in cafes, on public transport and in workplaces” and that “Israel offers Palestinians the right to vote [and that] there are Palestinian citizens in the Knesset”. Since this was not the case in South Africa, they argue, it is therefore grossly unjust and inaccurate to call Israel an apartheid state.

This argument is problematic in that it links the crime of apartheid exclusively to its South African variant. Is it really accurate that for any state to be guilty of apartheid it must be a virtual carbon copy of the South African variant? Treating apartheid as a legal term rather than a historical one debunks this argument.

As explained in a 2009 report by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, the 1973 Apartheid Convention defines apartheid as a state sanctioned regime of law and institutions that exists “for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”

Based on a detailed examination the situation in the Occupied Territories, the report goes on to find that “Israel appears clearly to be implementing and sustaining policies intended to maintain its domination over Palestinians in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] and to suppress opposition of any form to those policies.” Putting the historical analogy debate finally to bed, the report finds that the same three ‘pillars of apartheid’ that underpinned South Africa’s apartheid regime are present in the Occupied Territory.

So is BDS an appropriate response to Israeli apartheid? It would appear that, as far as international law is concerned, the use of BDS is perfectly permissible. The prohibition against apartheid is considered a peremptory legal norm from which no derogation is permitted. This means that when a state breaches the prohibition, all other states are obliged to take action. In these instances, states must act together to end the violation, refuse to recognize the illegal situation it creates, and avoid “rendering aid or assistance to the State committing it”.

Hawking was right to boycott the conference, which fails to acknowledge the injustices done to the Palestinians. He was also right to frame his objection the way he did. Not only do the tools he used – namely boycott, divestment and sanctions – bring marginalized Palestinian voices to the fore in a non-violent manner, but they also create a legally secure foundation upon which the international community can stand in solidarity to support the Palestinians until Israel complies with International law.




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