By Jeremy NEWMARK, Chief Executive of the Jewish Leadership Council.

News that Professor Stephen Hawking had withdrawn as a keynote speaker at the June 2013 Israeli Presidential Conference in support of the Boycott movement appeared to legitimise this contentious means of trying to achieve peace in an extremely complex region.

Jeremy Newmark

Jeremy Newmark of the Jewish Leadership Council

Prof. Hawking’s motives might be genuine, but his chosen method will not help achieve his stated aim. All those dedicated to peace – including the Jewish community – have always argued boycotts are unhelpful, damaging and immoral. His well-meaning actions have strengthened academic boycott campaigners like the British Committee for Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), whose aims are not driven by a desire for peace or a resolution to the conflict.

The boycott movement and PSC support the creation of a single Palestinian-majority state and the end of Israel’s existence. Norman Finkelstein, the pro-Palestinian author and activist, launched a blistering attack on the boycott movement, telling an interviewer: “While they support the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination, they do not support Israel right to exist.”

We stand opposed to the boycotters and haters because we don’t support boycotts, but also because we recognise both people’s right to self-determination. We see no contradiction with being pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, with two independent states living peacefully side by side.

In 2006, Hawking attended a physics conference in Neve Shalom, a Jewish-Arab village known for its tolerance and co-existence. Encouraging this type of approach, where both sides come together and are engaged in a spirit of academia is where efforts should be concentrated. Boycotts, however, greatly damage the peace process by snubbing attempts of conciliation. Hawking boycotted an event hosted by President Shimon Peres, a man who epitomises peace. He received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in the Oslo Accords and last June was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. In 1996, Peres founded The Peres Center for Peace, Israel’s leading nonprofit organisation promoting peace building between Israel and its Arab neighbours, particularly between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

Professor Hawking’s boycott is not only an insult to Peres but to all of those on both sides who have fought and yearned for peace. The conference – which will have a large Palestinian delegation – is a place for innovation and forward thinking, reflected in its title: Facing Tomorrow. It will explore politics, economics, environment and education and is an arena in the Middle East for progress and exchange of ideas that better the world. This is the sort of activity that should be encouraged and supported.

Hawking’s inconsistency is disappointing. He visited Iran, led by a Holocaust-denying President, who wants to wipe Israel off the map and who has a terrible track record on human rights abuses, yet he will now not visit Israel, a democracy where he’d be free to criticise Government policy. Can you imagine him having this freedom at an Iranian Presidential Conference? By only applying his moral standard to Israel, he plays into the hands of the boycotters whose real aim is to remove Israel altogether.

One of the founding members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, Omar Barghouti (who is studying for his Masters in Tel Aviv University) is quoted in The Guardian as saying: “Palestinians deeply appreciate Stephen Hawking’s support for an academic boycott of Israel…we think this will rekindle the kind of interest among international academics in academic boycotts that was present in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa”.

Hawking is now allied with Barghouti and the core of the official BDS movement sitting at the heart of attempts to isolate Israeli academia. This is particularly ironic. The academic peace camp is one of the most active and vocal in Israel. Boycotting those voices is illogical and harmful. Boycotts demonise and polarise, increasing hatred and reducing understanding. When peace finally comes – and we pray it does – it will be in spite of the actions of the boycott movement. The divisive campaign and politics of the BDS movement only serves to widen the gap between communities.