I would not have expected to be so pleased by Professor Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott a major conference in Jerusalem in solidarity with the Palestinians. But I was.

I say that because I do not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). Or to be precise I do not support it as applied to Israel itself in contrast to the occupation. I have strongly backed the efforts (most notably by church groups and specifically by the Presbyterians) to divest from corporations that sell Israel the equipment needed to maintain the occupation. I also support the multidenominational effort to link U.S. aid to Israel to its ending the occupation.

But I personally have drawn the line on boycotting Israel itself. Since I support the existence and security of Israel within the 1967 lines, I am not comfortable with actions that punish the Israeli people at large. I don’t think Israel is South Africa. Like President Jimmy Carter, I limit my use of the label “apartheid” to the occupied areas. I do not view Israel as an “apartheid state.”

Nor am I comfortable with punishing entire populations for the actions of their government. I think the international sanctions against Iraq and now Iran accomplished (and, in the case of Iran, accomplish) absolutely nothing except to punish ordinary people.

Moreover, as an American, I oppose punishing populations at large for the crimes of their government. Using that yardstick, we, ourselves, have more than earned boycotting, divestment and sanctions. Yet I don’t recall any such action against us over Iraq or Vietnam or any of our other foreign incursions or manipulations (like overthrowing governments we don’t like, as in Chile or supporting genocidal juntas as in Guatemala). I might feel differently if I was Norwegian or Canadian. But I’m an American which necessitates (or should necessitate) some humility.

And yet I cheered Stephen Hawking’s action. In no way did it punish the Israeli people. No ordinary Israeli will suffer as a result of his action. The only Israelis who are being hurt by it are the elites who are attending the conference, along with similar influentials from abroad. And even they won’t be hurt; the conference will go on. Hawking simply offered a powerful reminder that Israel is a country that has been running a brutal occupation for 45 years. He merely rained on one of Israel’s self-congratulatory parades, although both the Israeli government and its supporters abroad reacted as if Hawking had become a suicide bomber.

In fact, the very hysteria of the reaction to Hawking’s decision demonstrates that it was right and offers a model for other celebrities. He inflicted pain on powerful Israelis (and their supporters abroad) who support the occupation while energizing those brave and often lonely Israelis who oppose it. Good for him and good for those who follow in his footsteps.

I understand that my position as stated here is rife with contradiction. I oppose BDS but I endorse Hawking’s support for it.

But here’s the thing. I would not support Hawking’s protest if my own government was taking action against the occupation. If the Obama administration was using its leverage to get Israel out of the occupied territories or, at least, to stop the illegal settlement enterprise, there might be no need for any kind of boycott. After all, given our massive aid to Israel, our consistent support for Israel at the United Nations and our adopting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies on Iran, we have powerful leverage.

But President Barack Obama seems never have to considered using any of it. I have been following U.S. policy toward Israel since the late 1960′s and I can say without hesitation that there has never been an administration as slavish in its support of Israel’s policies as this one – not even Ronald Reagan’s or George W. Bush’s.

The policy of this administration toward Israel is best summed up by Vice President Joe Biden who has said that there must be “no daylight, no daylight” (yes, he said it twice) between U.S. and Israeli policies. This is not, of course, what Biden believes (I have spoken to him about his views on a half dozen occasions) but, no matter, it is wealthy donors who determine this administration’s policies on Israel not Biden’s personal beliefs – or, for that matter, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s, Secretary of State John Kerry’s – or President Barack Obama’s.

And that will not change. On Israeli-Palestinian peace, this administration is the killer of hope.

That is why I support Hawking and will support other similar efforts. Simply put, thanks to the Obama administration, there is no alternative.


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