PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Bennis Report with Phyllis Bennis, who now joins us from Washington, D.C. Phyllis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. She’s the author of the books Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism and Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.
JAY: Thanks for joining us again, Phyllis.
BENNIS: Great to be with you, Paul.
JAY: So Stephen Hawking’s announced he will not attend a conference in Israel. What’s that about? And how significant is that?
BENNIS: This is an extraordinary move on his part. This is probably the highest profile participant in the longstanding academic and cultural boycott that’s part of the global movement for what is known as BDS, boycott, divestment, and sanctions, a Palestinian civil society call that came out in 2005 urging people to bring nonviolent economic and social and cultural pressure to bear on Israel until it stops its violations of international law and human rights. For someone of Stephen Hawking’s stature to make a decision like this and be very clear that this was not because of ill health, it was specifically because of, as he put it in a statement, what he knows about Palestine and the recommendations that he sought from his Palestinian academic colleagues, this is huge. This was not really an academic conference.
JAY: Phyllis, just one sec. I’ll just jump in with a quote from The Guardian which I’ve just seen, where this apparently is an article that was written about this and approved by Hawking. This is what he said. It describes the cancellation as, quote, "his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there".
BENNIS: It’s an amazing thing to not only decide not to participate—and, again, this was not an academic conference per se; this was a thoroughly political conference. It’s the annual president’s conference that they hold in Israel every year under the auspices of now Israeli President Shimon Peres. And he was to be the keynote speaker. It always brings together global famous people of all different kinds—cultural workers, scientists, writers, artists, etc. And for someone of Hawking’s stature to make this decision and make that statement that he’s doing it independently in respect of the boycott, that’s huge. This is going to be a huge move forward for the boycott movement overall, and I think it’s going to move very close to making Israeli people, ordinary people, recognize the cost that their occupation and their apartheid policies are having on them; it’s not only something that happens to the government. You know, this is very similar, Paul, to the period in the late ’80s—sorry, the late ’70s and throughout the 1980s of the South Africa anti-apartheid movement. At the time when boycotts and divestment campaigns were underway, much of them focused on the banks and the corporations. But it was the sports boycott that really engaged white South Africans, because sports, and particularly South Africa’s role in the international sporting world, was hugely important for ordinary South Africans.
JAY: Well, this is what I was going to ask you. There’s been some critique from especially, you could say, left-of-center liberal Israeli academics who themselves have been very critical of the occupation. But they’ve critiqued the cultural part of the boycott. They agree with the sort of commercial boycott, but they say by the cultural boycott, and especially boycotting universities, it isolates many of the academics in Israel who are in fact critical of the policy. What do you make of that?
BENNIS: That’s true. As far as it goes, that’s a true statement. It does isolate to some degree those individual academics. The boycott is very clear. The boycott call is not aimed at individual academics. It doesn’t call for no one to talk to Palestinian academics, for example, or—sorry. It does not call for no one to talk to Israeli academics or Israeli scientists. The boycott aims at institutions, Israeli government and academic institutions. But there is no question that the pain of the boycott will be felt by individual Israelis. And the theory is—and this is, again, where it comes very close to the models that we saw during the South African era anti-apartheid movement—when South African, ordinary South African whites were affected by the sports boycott, they began to finally reconsider the cost to them of apartheid. In the Israeli instance, it means that Israelis who see Israeli culture and science and technology, the great accomplishments of Israeli society and what they’re most proud of, perhaps, in their society, that when that starts to be affected by this global boycott, when you have instances of people like Stephen Hawking saying, I will not participate in an official institutional Israeli [incompr.] because there is a boycott designed to force Israel to stop its violations of international law and human rights, that’s a huge reality.
JAY: Given how seriously Israel takes its science and scientists, the fact that Hawking and for—I assume most people know, but I think we should mention for those who don’t, Hawking is one of the world’s leading physicists and cosmologists. He’s a serious brain.
BENNIS: And probably the most famous scientist of any scientist in the world today, who’s alive today. He’s an extraordinary genius of a man. And the stature of that kind of a decision makes this inordinately important. And I think it very much parallels how white South Africans felt about the sports boycott. It was like the end of their world as they knew it. When that starts to happen with ordinary Israelis, when they start to realize that they are paying a price for these Israeli policies, they will begin to demand a change.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Phyllis.
BENNIS: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.