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Academics and activism: Stephen Hawking and the Israel boycott

The news that famous physicist Stephen Hawking has decided to join the academic boycott of Israel has attracted some heated commentary. Hawking pulled out of attending an Israeli conference in June, explaining…

A Palestinian farmer and Israeli soldier clash in an olive grove. Can academics in other countries affect this situation by boycotting one side or the other? AAP/Abed Al Hashlamoun

The news that famous physicist Stephen Hawking has decided to join the academic boycott of Israel has attracted some heated commentary.

Hawking pulled out of attending an Israeli conference in June, explaining in a letter to the Israeli president Shimon Peres that it was in protest of the treatment of Palestinians. In the aftermath, many have criticised his involvement in the boycott, even sparking accusations of anti-semitism.

But to better understand this controversy, it is useful to look at boycotts as a form of nonviolent action and the role of academics as activists.

Boycotts as nonviolent action

Nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp identified 198 methods of nonviolent action, classifying them into three broad categories: protest and persuasion, such as petitions and rallies; noncooperation, including strikes and boycotts; and nonviolent intervention, such as fasts, sit-ins and parallel government.

Many of these methods have been used in the Israel-Palestine struggle, but few receive much media attention. Most media reports on the conflict in Israel-Palestine focus on suicide bombers, military incursions and diplomatic initiatives.

Nonviolence is more commonly associated with Mohandas Gandhi and the struggle for India’s independence and with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the US civil rights movement. Nonviolent action has also been used in numerous other campaigns, for example in toppling dictators in the Philippines in 1986, in Eastern Europe in 1989, in Serbia in 2000 and in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011.

The first Palestinian intifada, from 1987 to 1993, involved rallies, vigils, strikes, boycotts, an alternative education system and other methods of nonviolent action. A number of analysts have examined the role of nonviolent action in the Palestinian struggle, some of them arguing that exclusively using nonviolent methods would be more effective.

Stephen Hawking has created international headlines with his decision to join the academic boycott of Israel. AAP

In the conflict today, the use of violence overshadows the Palestinian nonviolent struggle, despite the large numbers of Israelis, Palestinians and outsiders using nonviolent methods in support of Palestinian goals.

The academic boycott of Israel can be best understood as one of the many forms of nonviolent action being used. Rather than the familiar boycotts of goods or corporations, such as the boycott of Nestlé over its promotion of infant formula in the third world, the academic boycott is a boycott of social and cultural links.

Academics and activism

Boycotts are methods of noncooperation, but arguably the biggest impact of the academic boycott is the attention it brings to a cause. That a stand taken by Hawking on a social issue can generate news stories around the world, including both praise and condemnation, shows the symbolic power of an academic boycott.

It might be asked, isn’t Hawking stepping outside of his academic role by being “political”?

Actually, Hawking’s stand is just one of many ways academics engage with systems of power. Academics are often involved with social issues through teaching, research, public comment and personal involvement in campaigns. For example, social researchers investigate poverty, suicide, prison policies and a host of other significant issues, and some participate in public advocacy.

There is also plenty of research that doesn’t seem overtly political but has significant social implications. Consider, for example, scientists who develop weapons such as land mines and computer scientists who install back doors in computer codes to enable surveillance. The question is not whether research is political, because all of it potentially is in a broad sense, but what social goals are being served.

It can be argued that academics are being political if they visit Israel and being political if they refuse to visit. The choice is not whether to engage with social issues, but exactly how to engage.

Most commonly, only those academics who challenge groups or views are labelled as political, yet those who support the system are being just as political in their own way. When academics visit Israel, it is not news, just business as usual. But when academics declare a boycott, this is seen as more noteworthy. When a celebrity intellectual, Stephen Hawking, joins the boycott, it becomes international news.

Looking behind the news, and recognising the many forms of nonviolent action, Hawking’s stand should be seen not as something exceptional but as part of a long tradition of academic activism.