Mike Cushman: Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott the Israeli Presidential Conference is of great significance in exposing Israel’s apartheid regime
SHIR HEVER, TRNN PRODUCER: Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist from Cambridge University, has cancelled his visit to Israel, which was scheduled to take place in June of this year.
Hawking was supposed to speak at the Israeli Presidential Conference, a public relations event for promoting Israel’s prestige through high-level visitors.
Hawking explained the reason for cancelling his visit: “This is his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there.”
I’ve spoken with Mike Cushman, a member of BRICUP and convener of the organization Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods.
MIKE CUSHMAN, BRICUP MEMBER: BRICUP is the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine. We were set up to bring attention to the dire state of Palestinian higher education under occupation and under siege and to respond to the Palestinian call from PACBI for the academic and cultural boycott. It’s a collection of academics and university staff and a few others to campaign on this in the U.K. and to encourage similar action in other countries.
HEVER: Part of the Palestinian call for BDS is the call for academic and cultural boycott. Stephen Hawking’s decisions to cancel his trip is conceived within the context of this aspect of the boycott.
CUSHMAN: The academic boycott is an institutional boycott, not an individual boycott. We don’t boycott Israeli academics per se, but Israeli academics when they’re representing their institution. So if a professor comes from Tel Aviv or Ben-Gurion to talk about their research, no problem. If they come to promote their university in their position as dean or provost to talk about the glories of Israeli education, then we will boycott them. And we urge people not to engage in research collaborations with Israeli universities not to–for journals published by Israeli universities or to review for them or to go to conferences hosted by or organized by Israeli universities. That is the extent of the boycott. But the other way is we urge people not to go to visit Israeli universities, and even more, not to take part in propaganda exercises for the Israeli government. It was not a serious academic event; it was a propaganda event to celebrate an apartheid education system.
HEVER: BRICUP’s campaign to convince Hawking to cancel his visit earned the organization instant fame in Israel, as Hawking’s cancellation raised strong responses in the Israeli media and political sphere.
CUSHMAN: BRICUP worked with local Palestinian solidarity activists in Cambridge to encourage Stephen not to go. We knew that Stephen was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. He said this on more than one occasion in the past. We expected that if he was approached politely and with courtesy, he [would] not want to take up the invitation. What he asked us to do was to put him in touch with Palestinian academics who would talk for themselves rather than us as intermediaries. A number of distinguished Palestinian academics contacted Stephen, and in response he said to the Israeli authorities he was not going to travel.
HEVER: The Israeli Presidential Conference invites celebrities, such as Barbara Streisend, to show support for Israel and help Israel associate itself with art, science, and culture, rather than with occupation, apartheid, and violence.
CUSHMAN: I just wish they all showed the moral integrity of Stephen Hawking. By going, they’re propping up a discriminatory and repressive regime. And it’s incumbent on all of us to bring attention to the daily crimes being committed by the Israeli state, which university staff and universities as organizations are complicit in.
HEVER: The pro-Israeli response to Hawking’s cancellation came quickly. Cambridge University accused BRICUP of lying, claiming that the cancellation was due to health reasons. They later amended their statement and acknowledged that Hawking’s canceled his visit for political reasons.
CUSHMAN: Yesterday was really a strange day. I was besieged by emails and Tweets calling BRICUP liars, and we were liars for telling the truth. It was Cambridge University that flip-flopped, that lied, and then de-lied during the day. And I’m waiting for apologies from those who called BRICUP liars. They’re very quick to send out the insults, very slow to admit their error.
HEVER: Responses by Israeli organizations to Hawking’s cancellation demonstrate the tactics adopted by the Israeli propaganda, or Hasbara as it is known in Israel. Rather than discussing Hawking’s decision or defending the policies against Palestinians which lead Hawking to his decision, Israeli response took a different angle.
A right-wing Israeli organization, Surat Hadin, Israel Law Center, whose motto is “Terrorizing Terror”, argued that the chip in Hawking’s system which allows him to communicate despite his motor neuron disease has been developed in Israel.
Shurat Hadin gave the comment to the conservative Free Republic website, which presented Shurat Hadin as a human-rights organization, failing to mention that it is a right-wing organization dedicated to fighting Palestinian terrorism, but which defines the Palestinian government as terrorist.
Yet the quote made its way to The Guardian, which also didn’t identify the nature of the organization giving the quote.
The claim that Hawking’s chip is an Israeli technology is based on the fact that Intel has one of its factories in Israel and may build a second one. The Israeli government has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to Intel to encourage the company to stay in Israel and to expand its production there. As the story of Hawking’s cancellation shows, the reason is not just to create jobs for Israeli workers, but also to be able to associate Israel with the type of technology produced in Intel, as if Intel was an Israeli company, and as if technology can make up for discrimination, colonization, and occupation.
But the choice to refer to Hawking’s health problems in reference to his decision to respect the academic boycott and to cancel his trip to Israel is a rhetorical choice. Israeli organizations such as Shurat Hadin call Hawking’s decision hypocritical, but the message is one of a threat. If Hawking wants to use technology, he better not boycott Israel.
If people will believe that they are dependent on Israeli technology and cannot live without it, this belief might deter them, according to Hasbara logic, from boycotting Israel.
Hawking’s cancellation has caught the attention not only of Israelis, but of the international community.
CUSHMAN: –significant is extraordinary. On the leading BBC News discussion program today, this morning, they had a Palestinian academic talking about the need for the academic boycott of Israel. That’s never happened before. The BBC rarely talks to Palestinians and never talks to Palestinians who support boycott. This is a real first. And that would not have happened without Stephen’s action.
HEVER: The frantic responses in Israel and pro-Israeli organizations demonstrate the symbolic power of Hawking’s move and the fragility of Israel’s self-image.
This is Shir Hever for The Real News.
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