Professor Stephen Hawking's endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel will likely spur accusations of anti-Semitism, which is why we must challenge the idea that criticism of the state of Israel denotes hate towards Jews; only then can we help protect academic freedom and insure that the public sphere will thrive.
Hawking decided to pull out of the fifth annual "Facing Tomorrow" Conference as a protest of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. This conference will be hosted by Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, and brings together major leaders and intellectuals to discuss various subjects.
In a statement published by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, the incident was described as "his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advices of his own academic contacts there."
There have been numerous other victories in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) this year. The first academic union in Europe, the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI), endorsed the boycott of Israel. In the United States, the General Membership of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) voted in favor of a resolution that endorsed the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
We are beginning to see, more than ever, a major shift in academic discourse that allows for, and in some cases encourages, the open criticism of Israel. Various intellectuals and professors are continually endorsing a boycott and divestment campaign against Israel. However, this increased condemnation of Israeli policy doesn't come without a price. The BDS campaign has spurred, what I like to call the "You Hate Jews" Movement — a campaign that attempts to label any individual who criticizes Israel as anti-Semitic.
When Lawerence Summers, Harvard University president, called the BDS movement and subsequently any criticism of Israel "actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent," he single-handedly destroyed academic freedom. It is even more problematic when we witness these types of claims translating into policy like the California State Assembly resolution that defined criticism of Israel as "anti-Semitism.". This type of policy presents a dangerous dilemma because it discourages individuals from freely entering the public sphere and restricts deliberative public discussion. If an individuals refrain from speaking against illicit Israeli policies for the fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, they have been stripped of their ability to engage in any form of democratic iterations* and are unable to challenge the validity of illegitimate state laws and policy.
Perhaps those who criticize the BDS movement do not understand its mission. Jewish Berkeley Professor Judith Butler, described the BDS movement best when she said it's "a non-violent movement; it seeks to use established legal means to achieve its goals […] this is also a movement whose stated core principles include the opposition to every form of racism, including both state-sponsored racism and anti-Semitism."
However, it seems that those who oppose the BDS movement will continue to associate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. This concept must be challenged. Being anti-Israel does not translate to being anti-Jew. Many Jews themselves have been, as Butler put it, forced to "disavow their Jewishness" because "they make the mistake of thinking that the State of Israel represents Jewishness for our times, and that if one identifies as a Jew, one supports Israel and its actions. And yet, there have always been Jewish traditions that oppose state violence, that affirm multi-cultural co-habitation, and defend principles of equality, and this vital ethical tradition is forgotten or sidelined when any of us accept Israel as the basis of Jewish identification or values."
We must do everything in our power to ensure that the "You Hate Jews" Movement does not succeed, because its success impedes any demand for fair and democratic forms of legislation and restricts dissent towards the most heinous Israeli actions. If we do not reject the labeling of academic boycotts as "anti-Semitic," we help create an environment that protects one perspective while hindering the right to dispute unlawful state legislation. A healthy public sphere encourages individuals to recognize and discuss unlawful policies and pushes political action to help create alternatives to these policies.
I suggest the next time someone accuses you of being anti-Semitic for merely criticizing Israel's human rights violations, respond by informing them that they are anti-public reason and thus annihilators of the most basic attribute of democracy.
*See Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens.
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