Stephen Hawking isn’t the first big name to announce he is boycotting Israel. And he won’t be the last. But as one of the world’s most famous and revered scientists, his decision to withdraw from speaking at a prestigious academic conference in Israel next month is a bigger blow than the posturing of a rock star.
Hawking’s decision and announcement is all the sadder because it ignores the fact that support of the boycott movement, and refusal to attend an otherwise meaningful academic conference, is a sweeping condemnation of the entirety of Israel, rather than a targeted disagreement over specific government policy issues. As such, Hawking’s statement and actions add to the hostility, rather than bring focus to specific disagreements.
It’s not just Hawking who missed the point. Some of his defenders were also confused about the meaning of Hawking’s decision. For example, The Boston Globe praised Hawking for his nonviolent boycott: “In the context of a Mideast conflict that has caused so much destruction and cost so many lives, nonviolence is something to be encouraged.”
Nonviolent though his actions may be, Hawking’s apparent change of heart and his support of the boycott movement, has run a steamroller over the inconvenient truths of Israeli society – such as its democratic system, its vital academic life and the many freedoms and liberties enjoyed by all citizens of Israel, in contrast to many of their Arab cousins in the region. In that sense, Hawking’s search for truth appears to have led him to reach a wrong conclusion, as sadly reflected in the letter which the British-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign released as Hawking’s response to the conference organizers:
“I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott,” the letter said, according to the PSC. “In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”
Hawking’s letter acknowledges two options. He chose to boycott. But he could have gone to Israel, and spoken his mind. And a trip to Israel would have been nothing new, since Hawking has visited Israel several times in the past, despite any concerns or reservations he had about particular government policies.
Many visitors to Israel have been able to figure out how to express their disagreement with particular government policies without succumbing to the intellectually dishonest adoption of the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” line – which literally condemns the entirety of Israel simply because of a significant disagreement over Palestinian policy.
Most intellectuals are able to separate the issues, and address the ones that concern them. Until now, we thought Hawking had the intellectual bandwidth and honesty to do so, as well. But that no longer appears to be the case. And worse than that, with his communications system running on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team, it also appears that one of the world’s most famous thinkers has shown that he is not even open-minded, either.