Stephen Hawking’s Israel Boycott

by Benjamin Studebaker

Stephen Hawking was scheduled to do a conference in Jerusalem, but has backed out, choosing to respect the academic boycott of Israel. The academic boycott seeks to show the Israeli case to be analogous to the South African case–during the apartheid era in South Africa, many academics chose to boycott that country. Is Stephen Hawking right to respect the academic boycott?

In order to answer this question, we need to know to answer several subsidiary ones:

  1. Was the academic boycott of South Africa a good idea in the first place?
  2. If so, to what extent is the Israeli case similar to the South African case such that an academic boycott would function similarly?

The observant reader will note that the second question is only relevant if the answer to the first question is “yes”. It’s often assumed that anything that was done to South Africa in the name of ending apartheid in that country was justified purely on the basis that apartheid in South Africa ended.  This is however an example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy–“after this, therefore because of this”. Simply because there was an academic boycott of South Africa before apartheid ended in that country does not mean that this boycott played any significant role in causing apartheid to end.

So this brings us to a further question–what caused the end of apartheid in South Africa?

Unjust states often persist in unjust policies despite significant amounts of international disapproval. When a state changes its internal policies in response to the behaviour of foreigners, it is usually under one of two conditions:

  1. Military Intervention–a foreign state or group of states invades, bombs, or otherwise maims the state in question until it changes policy.
  2. Economic Intervention–a foreign state or group of states cuts the state in question off from the global trade network in a bit to cripple its economy without committing military force.

In the South African case, the latter course of action was pursued in the mid-80’s. The result was capital flight from South Africa and a collapse in the value of the South African currency, the rand. We can see in the data the effect of the embargo on the rand’s value, which collapses relative to the US dollar:

The academic boycotts of South Africa began in the 1960’s. Apartheid did not end until 1994, and we can see that the economic effects on the rand don’t take hold until 1984, when states began to take action against South Africa. It should be noted that the value of the rand continued to fall post-apartheid due to a lack of confidence in the economic chops of the post-apartheid government, a lack of confidence which has proven justified–the ANC has not managed the South African economy particularly well post-1994. Its utilities have been unable to meet demand for electricity, its inflation rate has been high, and it has run a worsening current account deficit. Nevertheless, the spark that ignited the fire that is South African economic malaise was the international activity in the 80’s.

So if we are to accredit the academic boycotts, we would need to have some reason to believe that the boycotts were the cause of changing public opinion in western countries, that they influenced these states to penalise South Africa. If there is a connection, it’s a long fuse. Twenty years is a long time in modern democratic politics. It would also need to be established that there is something specific to the boycotts that did this such that it could not have been achieved through alternative policies.

For instance, instead of academically boycotting South Africa, academics could have just constantly criticised that government publicly, engaging in controversial public debates with supporters of the apartheid policies within that country. There is no obvious reason why this would be less effective at alerting to the public to injustice. There are even reasons to suppose it potentially more effective. It’s one thing to assert that South African apartheid is unjust and that therefore you will have nothing to do with that country, it’s another thing to provide persuasive arguments for that position and to illustrate the persuasiveness of these arguments by successfully refuting the defences offered by South African scholars.

Now, one might point out that Stephen Hawking is not a political theorist. His academic background may not put him in the right position to engage with arguments in defence of Israeli policy. So the case must surely have been with many academics with South Africa. A lot of academics have no background in social science. Do boycotts give them a meaningful way of contributing to the undermining of unjust policies in lieu of argument?

My inclination is to say “not really”. Only the most famous of non-social scientists can generate significant publicity with a political view. Your average academic harms the progress of human knowledge more than he harms an unjust state by refusing to engage with its scholars. But what of Hawking? Hawking is that one scientist in ten thousand who is sufficiently well known that his political views really might be influential. If he does not have the training to argue on behalf of the victims of injustice, surely his participation in a boycott is better than nothing?

Well, not really. If I do not have the skill to make an argument in favour of a position, my support for that position is rather hollow. If Stephen Hawking has good reasons to disapprove of Israeli policy, we would all be better served by hearing him articulate those reasons, ideally in Israel, to an Israeli audience, than we would by running across in the media his decision not to attend the event. If Stephen Hawking doesn’t have good reasons, he really ought not to be giving an opinion at all.

Where disapproval of Israel is justified, the boycott is always inferior to the reasoned argument. Where disapproval of Israel is not justified, the boycott lends credence to an opinion of no value. In sum, it’s not a very good idea. If Stephen Hawking believes Israel is like South Africa, he should go to Israel and say so.

And if Stephen Hawking did go to Israel and he did compare it to South Africa, would he have any grounds for doing so? Well, yeah. Quite a few, actually. But don’t just take my word for it–check out Dworkin. The running theme in all the criticism is a simple one–the Israeli state gives its Jewish citizens preferential treatment over its non-Jewish citizens. In doing so, it does not show equal concern for the interests of all of its citizens, just as the South African state did not show equal concern for all of its citizens during the apartheid era. This constitutes a state of oppression for Palestinians and Arab Israelis that is equivalent to the state of oppression experienced by black South Africans during the apartheid era. Yes, this should be pointed out, but it should be pointed out in exciting dialogue that includes Israeli scholars, not through the boycott’s blunt instrument.