It’s hard to know which is the bigger deal, Stephen Hawking’s BDS-inspired decision to drop out of a high-powered conference in Israel (a country he has visited several times before) or the Boston Globe’s endorsement of Hawking’s protest. Both actions would have been virtually inconceivable five years ago, and both reflect the broader impatience of mainstream, high-prestige Western institutions and personalities with Israel’s intensifying land-grabbing on the West Bank and its longstanding practice of using the never-ending “peace process” to camouflage policies of slow-motion ethnic cleansing.
Hawking of course is a global celebrity, renowned as a top theoretical physicist who has triumphed professionally despite suffering from the most debilitating of diseases. His defiance is celebrated in graphic form here and analyzed perceptively by the Israeli anti-occupation journalist Larry Derfner here. Derfner doesn’t really like BDS but notes that nothing else to date has worked: the Israeli public seems all too happy to elect governments which support the occupation, the United States is too timid to try “tough love” on Israel, and it’s very difficult for the Palestinians to make non-violent protest effective against an occupier using live ammunition, midnight arrests, and detention without trial. Not that they aren’t trying.
Hawking’s protest certainly raises the global BDS movement to a new level. For a major American newspaper, one not known for criticism of Israel, to back it is another milestone. Hawking is difficult to defame, though some Israel lobbyists have been trying. (Alan Dershowitz goes for the trifecta here.) But in response the Globe laid out what must be seen as the unassailable mainstream case for the BDS movement; BDS is a peaceful way to work for justice in a region that has seen all too much violence. Nothing more or less. One can lament that the window for a two-state solution is already shut (because no Israeli government is inclined to remove hundreds of thousands of settlers) or believe that it is shutting fast. But if one wants the occupation to end, what is one to do? Something must be done to shake Israel out of its seemingly autistic compulsion for stealing Palestinian land. And though the occupation itself is violent, far far better that the resistance take a form as nonviolent as a boycott. Twenty years of an American-sponsored peace process has led precisely nowhere—and Obama has already indicated that he won’t try to impose a two-state solution on a recalcitrant Israel. Then what? The Palestinians should accept passively their dispossession and second-class status, Israel’s effort to deprive them of everything from water resources to freedom of movement to freedom to build houses? Should those Americans whose long-term support for Israel did not include an Israel right or wrong clause continue to support it, forever? The world isn’t like that anymore, if it ever was.
The Boston Globe will now come under intense pressures to retreat. There will be calls for an editor to be reprimanded or fired. Some of these will come from advertisers. The Israel Lobby is masterful at pushing the buttons of guilt and fear in mainstream institutions, charging that any serious effort to end the occupation is a manifestation of anti-Semitism because it is anti-Israel, threatens the existence of Israel, etc. Israel demands, in essence, to be shielded from serious criticism because it is Jewish. Silly as this is, it often works. Increasingly, however, it is not working.
Sometime in the next decade or two, the dam will break, and a clear majority of Americans will think it absurd to make the central theme of American foreign policy subsidy and support for an ethnostate so far removed from America’s increasingly multicultural and non-racist values. The transformation of opinion will likely come as suddenly and rapidly as it did with gay marriage. But no dam breaks out of the blue; instead its collapse is foreshadowed by hundreds of small or not-so-small leaks and fractures, which leave its structures weakened. Stephen Hawking, the Boston Globe, these are not so small leaks or fractures. My sense is that the main figures in the Israel Lobby realize this as well. They can’t punish Stephen Hawking. They will surely try to punish the Globe, and make an example of its opinion editor, and thus strike fear into other journalists. A decade ago, they would have almost certainly succeeded. Now I’m not sure they will.