Archive for the ‘Cross Post’ Category.

Hypocrisy and double standard: An open letter to Stephen Hawking

This is a cross post from Haaretz by Carlo Strenger

By deciding not to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, one of the world’s leading scientists is singling out Israel and denying it has been under existential threat for most of its existence.


Dear Professor Hawking,

There are many reasons why you are considered one of the world’s leading scientists. As you know very well, one reason for your achievement is the ability to keep a mind of your own and to refuse caving in to pressure by the mainstream. Innovation is only possible if you are immune to such pressure.

Given my respect for your achievement I am surprised and saddened by your decision, reported today by The Guardian that you have cancelled your participation at this year’s President’s Conference in Jerusalem, and that you have joined those who call for an academic boycott of Israel. I would have expected a man of your standing and achievement not to be influenced by the pressure that was reportedly exerted on you to cancel your visit in Israel.

Let it first be said that I have been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories for many years, and that I have voiced this opposition with all means at my disposal. I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is indefensible morally, stupid politically and unwise strategically, and I will continue opposing it as long as I can.

This being said, I have always found it morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible that many British academics have been calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This call is based on a moral double standard that I would not expect from a community whose mission it is to maintain intellectual integrity.

Yes, I think that Israel is guilty of human right violations in the West Bank. But these violations are negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China, to mention only a small number of examples. Iran hangs hundreds of homosexuals every year; China has been occupying Tibet for decades, and you know of the terrible destruction Russia has inflicted in Chechnya. I have not heard from you or your colleagues who support an academic boycott against Israel that they boycott any of these countries.

But let me go one step further: Israel is accused of detaining Palestinians without trial for years. So is the USA, which, as you very well know, to this day has not closed Guantanamo Bay. Israel is accused of targeted killings of Palestinians suspected or known to be involved in terrorist acts. As is reported worldwide, the United States has been practicing targeted assassinations of terror suspects in many countries for years.

The question whether these detentions and targeted assassinations can be justified is weighty, and there are no simple answers. Personally I think that even in a war against terror democracies must make every conceivable effort to maintain the rule of law and avoid human rights violations.

Yet let us not forget that both Israel and the United States are in difficult situations. Israel was on the verge of a peace agreement with the Palestinian people when the second Intifada broke out. Daily Israelis were shredded into pieces by suicide bombings, and it is very difficult for Israeli politicians to convince Israelis to take risks for peace. The U.S. is still reeling from the trauma of 9/11. It has occupied two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade since. I happen to think that it was wrong to attack Iraq, in the same way that I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is wrong.

Professor Hawking: how can you and your colleagues who argue for an academic boycott of Israel justify your double standard by singling out Israel? You are simply denying that Israel has been under existential threat for most of its existence. To this day Hamas, one of the two major parties in Palestine, calls for Israel’s destruction, and its charter employs the vilest anti-Semitic language. To this day hardly a week goes by in which Iran and its proxy Hezbollah do not threaten to obliterate Israel, even though they have no direct conflict with Israel about anything.

Singling Israel out for academic boycott is, I believe, a case of profound hypocrisy. It is a way to ventilate outrage about the world’s injustices where the cost is low. I’m still waiting for the British academic who says he won’t cooperate with American institutions as long as Guantanamo is open, or as long as the U.S. continues targeted assassinations.

In addition to the hypocrisy, singling out Israel’s academia is pragmatically unwise, to put it mildly. Israel’s academia is largely liberal in its outlook, and many academics here have opposed Israel’s settlement policies for decades. But once again, British academics choose the easiest target to vent their rage in a way that does not contribute anything constructive to the Palestinian cause they support.

Israel, like any other country, can be criticized. But such criticism should not be based on shrill moralism and simplistic binary thinking – something I do not expect from academics. The real world is, unfortunately a messy, difficult place. Novelist Ian McEwan is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed … It’s not great if everyone stops talking” when he was criticized for coming to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 2011.

He certainly has a point. Living up to the standards of human rights and the ideals of democracy in an imperfect world is difficult. Major thinkers like Philip Bobbitt and Michael Ignatieff have invested deep and comprehensive thought into the difficult topic of how to maintain the human rights standard in a world threatened by terrorism.

Professor Hawking, I would expect from a man of your intellectual stature to get involved in the difficult task of grappling with these questions. Taking the simple way out of singling out Israel by boycotting it academically does not behoove you intellectually or morally.

If your cancelation was indeed a function of pressures and not from health reasons, as stated by your university following The Guardian’s report, I would respect it if you were to reconsider your decision and come to the President’s Conference.


Carlo Strenger

Getting boycott ethics right

This is a cross post from Progress online by Luke Akehurst.

Why does the Co-op pick Israeli companies to boycott? It doesn’t add up.

This morning in Manchester I found myself demonstrating outside the HQ of a major supermarket chain.

It wasn’t the HQ of a profiteering capitalist supermarket chain though. I was demonstrating outside the HQ of the Cooperative Group, an organisation which prides itself on its ethical standards. A mutually owned organisation I am proud to be a member of, alongside six million others.

The protest today outside the Co-op was because it has allowed itself to get dragged into the complex and fraught arena of the Middle East conflict.

Under pressure from anti-Israel activists from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (an organisation heavily influenced by Leninist groups such as the SWP and Socialist Action which have an ideological objection to Israel’s existence), the Co-op has adopted a policy of boycotting all the produce, wherever it is sourced, from four Israeli companies which source some produce from Israeli settlements. These companies include one that is the main exporter for the Kibbutz (communes/cooperative farms) movement – an icon of the global cooperative tradition – and one that is the main exporter for Palestinian farmers. All of their produce is now blacklisted by the Co-op.

The Co-op’s boycott position is unlikely to have any economic impact on Israel. Israel and the UK have increased their trade with each other by 30 per cent in the last year to almost £4bn.

But it is one part of a global BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign by anti-Israel activists which is aimed at undermining Israel’s legitimacy by comparing it to apartheid South Africa and using the same tactics against Israel that were used against South Africa.

This is pernicious because Israel is the only stable parliamentary democracy in the Middle East, with freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, a vibrant multi-party debate, freedom of worship and sexual orientation, and full civil rights for minorities, including its Arab citizens. It is a society which bears no relation to the racist police-state, ruled by a small and privileged minority group, that was apartheid South Africa.

The boycott also impacts on the UK’s Jewish community. The vast majority of British Jews consider themselves Zionists (supporters of a Jewish state in Israel), and feel a profound personal and emotional attachment to Israel. When they hear the Co-op is joining in with the BDS campaigners it alienates them from the Cooperative movement and makes them feel unwelcome in Co-op stores. Throughout history the Jewish people have been subjected to boycotts by host communities, culminating in the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops and businesses.

Anything that carries echoes of that by boycotting Israeli businesses is understandably incredibly distressing for Jewish people.

I’m not Jewish, but as director of We Believe in Israel, a grassroots network of non-Jewish and Jewish supporters of Israel, I was making my distress about the boycott known to the Co-op alongside local activists from within the Jewish community in Manchester.

We are not asking the Co-op to ignore the issue of settlements and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank since the 1967 six day war. My organisation strongly supports a two-state solution, with a lasting peace delivered through the negotiated creation of a Palestinian state in return for Israel getting the security it needs. After all, if you are a Zionist and believe in the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own, it follows that the Palestinians should have a state of their own, and the only place this can happen is in Gaza and the West Bank.

But a simplistic approach that merely condemns the settlements and hangs a boycott policy on that ignores the fact that the future status of the small percentage of West Bank land where Israeli settlements are sited is a key issue for any peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. All serious peace plans have involved ‘land-swaps’ where some settlements become part of Israel. This isn’t a simple issue which can be decided by campaigners in the UK.

I strongly believe that the Co-op should not take sides in the complex Middle East conflict by boycotting Israeli companies. It should engage and trade with both sides and work for peace. It should particularly work with the Israeli and Palestinian co-op movements to foster economic engagement and joint projects that build confidence and trust between the two peoples.

Particularly troubling is the way that Israel has been singled out for this type of treatment. The Co-op’s boycott is hinged on an ethical policy which, rather than making objective judgements about the scale of human rights problems in a country, has, as one of its four criteria, a clause about there being an international consensus about illegal occupation of territory. This catches Israel and only one other area, the Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara. The West Bank is almost sui generis as its legal status was confused by the previous occupying power, having been Jordan from 1948 to 1967, whose rule was only recognised by two other countries. Other high-profile cases of an occupation of questionable legality – China’s rule in Tibet and the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus – are not similarly treated as they fall outside the narrow definition set by the Co-op, largely because the Co-op relies on the viewpoint of the UN, which has an entrenched anti-Israel majority, making political rather than moral judgements. It is almost as though the Co-op either subcontracted its ethical policy to ethically dubious views of the UN General Assembly, or wrote a policy specifically designed to target the world’s only Jewish state.

The ethical double standard is that the Co-op has no problem trading with companies sourcing from some of the most pernicious dictatorships and human rights-abusing regimes in the world. It holds 60 per cent of the share capital of a pharmaceutical company incorporated in China. It sells ‘romantic honeymoon packages’ to Communist Cuba. It sells bananas from Ivory Coast, which Freedom House says is ‘not free’. It says Oman, also ‘not free’, is a travel ‘must see’. It has no policy against buying petrol from Saudi Arabia (the Co-op is in partnership with Texaco petrol stations thanks to its purchase of Somerfield).

As far as I can establish, while it proactively boycotts four Israeli companies, the Co-op has no policy stopping it buying produce from Syria, where the regime is using death squads, tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and bombs against its own civilians.

If you are a member of the Co-op and think it is wrong that it should boycott companies from Israel, a rare beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, please make your views known to your elected representatives in the Co-op structures and help us push the Co-op to develop a policy more worthy of its proud ethical traditions. Please email me at if you are interested in this campaign or would like to be on our mailing list.


A Call to Arms: Pre-emptive work is needed to stop our enemies.

This is a cross post from Adam Langleben’s thoughts on Barnet, Europe and the Jewish World by Adam Langleben. 

Much has been written over the past several weeks about the co-op’s decision to boycott products produced from the West Bank and Unison’s decision to un-invite Moty Cristal from speaking at a conference in Manchester. I will not dwell too much on it or repeat it, as you can find information and comment elsewhere.

Why has this happened? And why do these (mostly irrational and ill-thought through) boycott motions continually happen, over and over again?

Answer: Because we (the Jewish community) broadly speaking do not engage with those bodies. Of course, Trades Union Friends of Israel, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, as well as others engage on a senior level, but this often lacks the necessary punch in organisations such as trades unions or co-operatives. These organisations are democratic bodies, and communication at the top will only get you so far.

What we need are teaching staff, civil servants, local government workers and others to actually join their trades unions and engage in these bodies.

Ruthlessly attacking bodies such as these after a vote has been cast simply forces them to take a defensive line, as they need to defend the decision made via the mandate that they have, regardless of turnout, as these are the rules.

I joined the Labour Party when I was 20, back then I did not realise that by being a Jewish member of this party, a party with a great tradition that I am proud of, I would be on the frontline in the fight against Delegitimisation of the State of Israel. However, this responsibility has been thrust upon myself and all other Jewish and Zionist members of the Labour Party, it is not a task we asked for, and often we may fail at influencing our peers, but we have a voice at the table because we have a great many Jewish members and make ourselves heard.

As a member of the GMB I have written to my branch secretary asking for clarification on their interpretation of the TUC stance on Israel. I am also awaiting a reply from my local Cooperative representative about the boycott on West Bank produce.

Public sector workers, especially Jewish ones are also on the front line. They have an opportunity to influence their representative trades unions to ensure that they are not hijacked and turned into vehicles which promote values opposite to that of the mainstream.

I would like to see a Trades Unions/Cooperative/local political parties (of any mainstream persuasion) membership drive within the community to ensure that we are part of the discussion, inside the tent rather than peeking through a hole on the outside shouting, kicking and screaming.

So find one and join! Never know, you might actually enjoy it!