On the pro-Israeli side was Norman Geras, an author and Professor of Politics at Manchester University, who responded with a strongly critical blog post called ‘Hawking a bad argument’
. As it happens, Geras and I agree that Hawking made the wrong choice. But the different ways he and I arrive at that conclusion help clarify some issues in the debate over Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions
In my article, I rejected one kind of argument against a boycott of Israel: that it unfairly singles out a country which is by no means the worst abuser of human rights. I wrote that ‘the question is not whether we are consistent but whether we have a chance of achieving some good’.
Geras disagrees. Though he acknowledges ‘You don’t have to refrain from doing some good just because you can’t do all the possible good there is to do’, he seems to think that you do have to refrain from attempting to do good so long as the act in question is what he calls a ‘generalizable negative activity that does not impose costs on those who undertake it’.
In other words, you must not boycott a country on human rights grounds unless you are prepared to boycott every other country with a human rights record that is as bad as, or worse than, the country in question (so long as these extra boycotts involve no extra costs for you).
This is a peculiar argument. For one thing, any boycott involves costs. Boycotting China or Zimbabwe would involve the cost of not being able to go to China or Zimbabwe, and the effort of having to publicise it (making a website, printing flyers, and so on). This might be worth doing, or it might be a waste of time. If boycotting China stood a reasonable chance of changing Chinese human rights policy, there would be a strong case for doing it. But that is a separate argument: it has nothing to do with Israel.
Remember, a boycott is just a strategy to achieve a specific political goal. It is not an attempt to articulate a comprehensive moral worldview that applies to every comparable situation. At most, Geras’s point about moral consistency is a case for boycotting additional countries – not for abandoning a boycott of Israel.
The way I see it, there are two key questions in this debate.
The first is this: assuming that boycotting Israel makes peace more likely, is doing so legitimate?
To which the answer (in my view) must be: yes, of course. Granted, Geras would presumably view this as a highly hypothetical question. But his answer to it is logically significant. Does he really mean to suggest that, even if BDS could help end the conflict, he would still oppose it on the grounds that there is no similar boycott of China, Zimbabwe, etc.?
The second question is this: is it in fact the case that a boycott makes peace more likely?
In my view the answer to this question is no. In fact, I think on balance BDS harms prospects for peace, because it sends a message to Israel that its opponents have a problem not with its policies towards the Palestinians but with its very existence. Since the aim of BDS is (presumably) to influence Israel’s behaviour, it seems crucial to me to consider what message it sends the Israeli regime. As I wrote in my article, BDS reinforces the Israeli right’s anti-peace narrative, which says: “The world will never accept us, and we must rely on our own strength to survive. That is why we must never compromise or show vulnerability.”
In other words, the difference between Norman Geras and me is this: I oppose BDS on pragmatic grounds, whereas he rejects it on principle. What this means, of course, is that I would be willing to countenance BDS if circumstances were different, and if I believed the strategy was likely to help end the conflict. Geras seems to be saying that he would oppose BDS even if it could help bring about peace.
But I’m not entirely sure Geras means what he seems to be saying here. His argument doesn’t really address the question of when a boycott might be legitimate, and on what grounds. His purpose isn’t to grapple with such questions, but to infer the motives of the boycotters from their actions, and to judge them accordingly. In effect, he is saying: if you boycott a country on human rights grounds, but neglect to boycott worse human rights abusers at the same time, you must have questionable motives for doing so.
Well, there are a number of reasons why you might choose to boycott country X and not country Y. One is an irrational hatred for country X. Another is the belief that a boycott stands a chance of working in the case of country X, but not country Y. I dare say there are a variety of motives – some good, some questionable, and some confused – among those who advocate boycotting Israel. The important question is whether a boycott is the right thing to do. Which means, as I have argued: does it have a chance of helping bring about peace? If doing something is right, it’s still right even if other people are doing it for reasons that are wrong.
Geras’s point gestures at a larger issue: the way in which Israeli human rights abuses come in for more criticism than those of other, worse countries. I agree that this is the case, and I think there are a number of reasons for it – some distinctly fishy, some not. But this is an argument for more criticism of other countries’ wrongdoing, not less criticism of Israel’s. And it has nothing to do with the question of whether Stephen Hawking should have attended the Israeli Presidential Conference.