Of the three major BDS stories that broke last year, the only one I didn’t take time out of my hiatus year to write about was Stephen Hawking’s decision to turn down an invitation to Simon Peres’ President’s Conference in Israel.
At first, the story piqued my curiosity when there was a possibility that it might have constituted another BDS hoax. But when that turned out to not be the case, I lost interest – not because I wanted the story of a BDS win to go unmentioned, but because Hawking’s decision represents the least significant category of boycott, divestment and sanctions activity: personal decisions made by individual celebrities.
When an institution (such as the Presbyterian Church, the City of Somerville, The Park Slope Food Coop or the ASA) gets dragged into a BDS fight, those are important battles to join since (1) they cause harm to innocents – notably members of the organization who do not want to be associated with an ugly political agenda; and (2) they stand the chance of being replicated as BDS activists fan out to leverage any win they receive at a church, municipality, school (or whatever) to try to convince similar organizations to follow suit.
But when an individual chooses to exercise his or her right to not travel or participate in an event, they only harm themselves (as Elvis Costello discovered now that even Deep Purple feels comfortable dissing him from the stage in Tel Aviv). And as for triggering an avalanche of similar personal boycotts, the hundreds of prestigious academics who have chosen to participate in Peres’ President’s Conference over the last half decade, not to mention the thousands of intellectual superstars who travel to Israel every year to participate in conferences or work with colleagues, would seem to indicate Hawking’s personal opinion is shared by very few great minds of the day.
Now I will admit that Hawking’s personal story, as a man who overcame tremendous physical disability to become a scientist of world renown, is a moving one. But this simply means he straddles the line between intellectual and celebrity, which makes him one of the few intellectuals who routinely travel to Israel (as I believe Hawking has in the past) whose name the public might recognize.
But even if Professor Hawking has a higher profile than do other equally brilliant men and women who haven’t appeared in a Star Trek Next Generation episode, we’re still talking about a celebrity boycott (albeit by an academic celebrity). And as I’ve stated here, the opinion of a famous person (whether a rock star or physicist) speaking outside of their field of expertise should be given no more weight (although certainly no less) than that of any really smart person. Doing otherwise leads to what are called Appeal by Authority fallacies that try to leverage the enormous authority someone like Hawking has in matters regarding physics to a completely different domain (in this case, Middle East politics).
Having been in this game for close to ten years, the closest parallel I can come up with for this particular episode was Pete Seeger who, at the age of 92, was dragooned to hand over his scalp so that the BDSers could hang it on their “victory wall” (in a story far more ambiguous than the one related to Hawking). But in both cases, members of “the movement” felt perfectly comfortable delivering to an aged and/or infirm celebrity the same message they spent weeks posting on the Facebook page of Elton John: that their only moral choice is BDS and failing to embrace it will tarnish their reputation forever.
Unfortunately, they failed to mention to Hawking that moral taint derives not from a rejection but an embrace of the BDS agenda. So while the BDSers might have gained a bullet point on their next victory slide and Israel will continue to go from strength to strength, regardless of who does or does not visit, the only victim in this whole sordid tale is a brilliant and crippled man at the end of his career who title of “great” must now appear in quotation marks, a sad fate for a person who deserved to be left alone.