Stephen Hawking's support for the boycott of Israel is a turning point
A standard objection to the Palestinian campaign for the boycott of Israel is that it would cut off "dialogue" and hurt the chances of peace. We've heard this again in the wake of Professor Stephen Hawking's laudable decision to withdraw from Israel's Presidential Conference in response to requests from Palestinian academics – but it would be hard to think of a more unconvincing position as far as Palestinians are concerned.
One of the most deceptive aspects of the so-called peace process is the pretence that Palestinians and Israelis are two equal sides, equally at fault, equally responsible – thus erasing from view the brutal reality that Palestinians are an occupied, colonised people, dispossessed at the hands of one of the most powerful militaries on earth.
For more than two decades, under the cover of this fiction, Palestinians have engaged in internationally-sponsored "peace talks" and other forms of dialogue, only to watch as Israel has continued to occupy, steal and settle their land, and to kill and maim thousands of people with impunity.
While there are a handful of courageous dissenting Israeli voices, major Israeli institutions, especially the universities, have been complicit in this oppression by, for example, engaging in research and training partnerships with the Israeli army. Israel's government has actively engaged academics, artists and other cultural figures in international "Brand Israel" campaigns to prettify the country's image and distract attention from the oppression of Palestinians.
The vast majority of Palestinians, meanwhile, have been disenfranchised by the official peace process as their fate has been placed in the hands of venal and comprised envoys such as Tony Blair, and US and EU governments that only seem to find the courage to implement international law and protect human rights when it comes to the transgressions of African or Arab states.
When it comes to Israel's abuses, governments around the world have offered nothing but lip service; while dozens of countries face US, EU or UN sanctions for far lesser transgressions, it has taken years for EU governments to even discuss timid steps such as labelling goods from illegal Israeli settlements, let alone actually banning them. Yet the peace process train trundles on – now with a new conductor in the form of John Kerry, the US secretary of state – but with no greater prospects of ever reaching its destination. So, enough talk already.
The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) aims to change this dynamic. It puts the initiative back in the hands of Palestinians. The goal is to build pressure on Israel to respect the rights of all Palestinians by ending its occupation and blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; respecting the rights of Palestinian refugees who are currently excluded from returning to their homes just because they are not Jews; and abolishing all forms of discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
These demands are in line with universal human rights principles and would be unremarkable and uncontroversial in any other context, which is precisely why support for them is growing.
BDS builds on a long tradition of popular resistance around the world: from within Palestine itself to the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Historically, boycotts work.
During the 1980s opponents of sanctions against apartheid South Africa – including, notoriously, the late Margaret Thatcher – argued instead for "constructive engagement". They were on the wrong side of history. Today, Palestinians are lectured to drop BDS and return to empty talks that are the present-day equivalent of constructive engagement.
But there can be no going back to the days when Palestinians were silenced and only the strong were given a voice. There can be no going back to endless "dialogue" and fuzzy and toothless talk about "peace" that provides a cover for Israel to entrench its colonisation.
When we look back in a few years, Hawking's decision to respect BDS may be seen as a turning point – the moment when boycotting Israel as a stance for justice went mainstream.
What is clear today is that his action has forced Israelis – and the rest of the world – to understand that the status quo has a price. Israel cannot continue to pretend that it is a country of culture, technology and enlightenment while millions of Palestinians live invisibly under the brutal rule of bullets, bulldozers and armed settlers.