My Word: The black hole of BDS

By
May 16, 2013 22:30

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that Israel is under constant threat of missile attack.




Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking. (photo credit: REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud)

It’s not every day you discover you’re smarter than an iconic scientist of Stephen Hawking’s stature. That day came for me last week. On May 8, to be precise.

When Cambridge University announced that Hawking was pulling out of the annual Facing Tomorrow conference hosted by President Shimon Peres for reasons of health, I felt sorry for him.

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When Matthew Kalman writing for the Guardian demonstrated that, as rumored, Hawking had withdrawn from next month’s three-day gathering for ideological reasons, I felt worried about him – and sorry for all of us.

Hawking wrote an email to the conference organizers stating: “... I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. 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.”

Of course, Hawking, a former recipient of Israel’s prestigious Wolf Prize for physics, would have been free to speak his supposedly brilliant mind had he come.

Any state can declare someone persona non grata; Hawking took the unusual step of declaring himself an ungrateful persona.

It is well known that Hawking, 71, suffers from a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which causes progressive paralysis.

He breathes through a ventilator and communicates via a sophisticated computer.

It is less widely recognized that Israelis helped give Hawking his voice. The computer systems he uses relies on an Intel processor, based on a design by an Israeli team.

Israel is also a world leader in research into ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), and I wonder just how far his principles will stretch concerning any future breakthrough in treatment.

Would the wheelchair-bound scientist advocate that others abandon the chance of being able to improve their lives through, for example, the use of the ReWalk exoskeleton, made famous in the TV series Glee, which allows the paralyzed to walk? And what about other Israeli inventions? Will the pillcam, which records the digestive tract to facilitate medical diagnosis, suddenly be too bitter a pill to swallow? Is he divesting himself of the knowledge of the four Israeli Nobel laureates in the sciences or perhaps just the two Israelis who received the Nobel for their contribution to understanding economic principles? Does he have the courage – or temerity – to suggest that sufferers of multiple sclerosis avoid Copaxone, the drug developed in the Weizmann Institute? Would he rather people bleed to death than use the so-called “Israeli Bandage,” with a built-in pressure bar? Will he flush down the toilet all his USB Flash drives (known in Israel – where they were invented – as Disk-on-keys)? Has he so lost his moral compass that he would suggest that Facebook drop the close to $1 billion negotiations for purchasing Waze, the Israeli crowd-sourcing traffic and map application?

HAWKING’S DECISION to boycott the conference is stranger than most. He is not a young student as yet unaware of the complexities of the Middle East. And he has visited Israel more than once. As The Jerusalem Post noted in an editorial, he even has academic ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Jacob Bekenstein, whose groundbreaking hypotheses on black holes and thermodynamics were originally contested but later affirmed by Hawking.

Has Hawking himself fallen into a black hole, friends and colleagues asked last week. Especially as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that Israel is under constant threat of missile attack and worse from exactly those people who most benefit from this type of boycott decision.

Hawking could have made the choice to boldly and very publicly address those issues that most bother him in Jerusalem – where he would have been in the good (or at least noteworthy) company of former British prime minister Tony Blair and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, among others.

Instead, he answered the call of a small body called the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, which leads me, with the logic of a journalist rather than a scientist, to wonder just whom they are representing.

My alma mater, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was founded in 1918 – before the state was born; Albert Einstein was one of its founders and earliest patrons. The student body and faculty include Arabs and Jews.

I suspect you could count the number of Jewish students at a Palestinian university on the thumb of one hand.

Even many of those who call for the academic boycott of Israel have first taken the opportunity to study in its universities, including, most infamously, Tel Aviv University doctoral candidate Omar Barghouti.

AS CHANCE would have it, the same week Hawking made up his easily influenced mind to boycott Israel, I quipped that I must be the only Israeli about to address a room full of “Brits” without fear of being heckled by pro-Palestinian BDS supporters.

True, I was speaking at a HOB (Hitachdut Olei Britannia) event in Beit She’an. Had I been addressing British students on a UK campus rather than British immigrants and veterans at a guest house in the Jordan Rift Valley, I would have had a tougher time keeping my sense of humo(u)r and my nerve.

For unlike Hawking, who was assured of a warm reception here, Israelis speaking in Great Britain are aware that they’re likely to face verbal and even physical violence.

Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, produced an excellent excuse for his nonappearance at the HOB convention – his wife had just given birth to their second Sabra daughter. Stepping into the breach was the very personable, and extremely diplomatic, head of the embassy’s political section, Neerav Patel.

He had been primed that the audience would question him on the difficulties of renewing passports in Israel. Actually, many were more concerned about the cutback in the BBC World Service broadcasts – it seems that many expats love to hate the Beeb.

They were also concerned by what many who have moved here see as the ever-increasing rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the UK. Some HOB members expressed fears about traveling to today’s Britain, fears Mr. Patel did his best to calm.

But it would take more than sweet words from a diplomat and a nice cup of tea (with milk) to take away the bad taste produced by those calling for the boycott of everything Israeli, from Max Brenner chocolates to Israeli orchestras, theater and dance companies.

The boycott movement is spreading its ugly wings and lies across the world – to the benefit of no one. This week, students at Sydney University – about as far as you can get from the Middle East – called to cut ties with the Technion in Haifa, whose faculty includes three Nobel laureates.

Following an outcry, the Church of Scotland, meanwhile, promised to reword its 10-page report titled “The Inheritance of Abraham” that determined that “scripture” provides no basis for Jewish claims to Israel.

Let’s be charitable and suggest that the Bible lost something in translation – or maybe the Church of Scotland boycotted the Hebrew original.

As for Stephen Hawking, I have just one question: What planet are you living on?

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

liat@jpost.com


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