ONLINE ONLY: Academic Boycotts Teach Us Nothing

Stephen Hawking could learn from Antonio Munoz Molina who recognises that only the pursuit of truth can advance peace and understanding

Earlier this year an internationally renowned intellectual was invited to Israel. When his intention to accept the invitation was made public, he was showered with insults, accused of providing succor to Zionism and urged to disinvest from involvement with Israel. By interacting with the Israeli state he was marked as an enemy of the Palestinian cause and warned that he would be indelibly defiled if he shook the bloodied hand of his host, President Shimon Peres.

Yet unlike Professor Stephen Hawking the distinguished Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz Molina chose not to “respect” the demands of the boycotters. And upon arriving in Israel to accept the Jerusalem Prize, Molina could reflect that despite “the misunderstandings, the stereotypes, the malice and opportunism of politics, the mistakes and abuse of an occupation that has lasted too many years, there is in Israel a society that is alive, democratic, pluralistic and open, in which I can recognize myself as a citizen and where there are many people like me.” Remarking that this discovery would be “insultingly obvious” to anyone who actually experienced life inside Israel, Molina observed that many watching from outside were unable or unwilling to recognize reality. Instead Israel was the only country where one was forced to explain, almost apologetically, that the vast majority of its citizens are “decent, cultivated, supporters of secularism, the rule of law, of equality between men and women, opposed to the dangerous mix of dual entrenchment that can come from nationalism and religion.”

But the fact that Israeli society protects freedom of thought, expression and religion to a far greater extent than any other country in the region, and its pluralism is matched by few states around the world is immaterial to Hawking and the boycotters. Evidence that the majority of Israelis support a two-state solution and a withdrawal to some negotiated version of the 1967 borders is dismissed as irrelevant. And the decision by a number of Palestinians to attend the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, while Hawking boycotts it, is viewed as inconsequential. Even the hypocrisy of Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian leader of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement against Israel, enrolling at Tel Aviv University for his graduate studies is ignored. Instead Israel is isolated as unique in its inhumanity and subject to an irrational hatred, unrestrained by any attempt at reasoning or understanding. Singled out as incomparably evil, it is held to a moral standard not applied to genuinely authoritarian and repressive regimes, from Russia to China to Syria.

As the international boycott movement subscribes to a strategy first adopted by the Arab League to prevent the establishment of a Jewish homeland in 1945, three years before Israel’s foundation, it is hardly surprising Israelis feel besieged. Having watched the United Nations General Assembly equate Zionism with racism forty years ago, and then witnessed the constant, continuing attempts by a series of international institutions to delegitimise Israel, many Israelis have concluded that the world is hostile to Jewish self-determination in any guise, rather than simply any specific government’s policies. Casting Israel out as a pariah among the nations may satisfy those who wish to dismantle the Jewish state. But it is counter productive if your goal is a two state solution.

By indiscriminately discriminating against the people of an entire nation, a boycott shuts down engagement with those individuals, on both sides of the Green Line, who are working most tirelessly and innovatively to alter the status quo and bring about peace. The daily sacrifices and struggles of these brave Israelis and Palestinians are undermined by the simplistic, self righteousness of those who seek to impose a lazy, Manichean interpretation of good and evil on such an intractable, complex conflict. The morally repugnant and historically specious comparison of Israel with Apartheid South Africa peddled by the boycotters is a gross injustice to all who strive for democracy, peace and human rights. By excommunicating Israel from the global community, the boycott would segregate those in the Middle East from the international support they require as they seek to improve life for themselves and their fellow citizens. It would deprive the world of the life giving medicines, technological innovations and internationally renowned scholars produced by Israel’s world-class universities, which have done so much to uplift humanity.

Ultimately, what is at stake for the international community, and particularly for us in Britain, is not the fate of Israel but the fundamental principles of academic freedom, free thought and the free exchange of ideas. By foreclosing every avenue for interaction with one nation, and a pluralistic one at that, by preventing discussion with those who differ with you on an issue, or merely want to discuss it with you, and by professing to know everything about a subject, such that your mind is closed to any further inquiry, a society does far greater intellectual damage to itself than that it seeks to silence.

Having spent his childhood growing up in Franco’s Spain, rather than in cosy Britain, Molina knows the issues at stake. While Hawking explained that his decision to boycott Israel was “based upon his knowledge of Palestine”, Molina travelled there “overwhelmed by the fervor to learn.” Molina’s insatiable thirst for knowledge, reinforced by his “incurable urge for teaching,” led him to seek to convey to those outside Israel “a piece of information they hadn’t counted with before” which “would help them to let go of some prejudice.” Stephen Hawking could learn much from Antonio Munoz Molina, who recognized that only through investing intellectual capital in the constant pursuit of truth, and refusing to abdicate responsibility as a scholar or teacher, can peace and understanding be advanced. 

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