At least one good thing will come of Stephen Hawking’s declaration that he will
not participate in the Facing Tomorrow conference to be hosted by President
Shimon Peres: The annual meeting that brings together a wide range of guests
from Israel and abroad – including prominent Palestinians Munib al-Masri and
Inas Said – will not suffer from a lack of media exposure.
exclusive report by Matthew Kalman on The Guardian’s website said that Hawking
was boycotting the conference for ideological reasons, which almost immediately
sparked tremendous Web traffic.
But a spokesman for Cambridge University
denied the report and claimed that it was the renowned British physicist’s
fragile health that prevented him from participating in the three-day conference
that begins in Jerusalem on June 18.
And this made sense. Hawking, 71,
has suffered from a debilitating motor neuron disease related to amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis (ALS) for most of his life. He is paralyzed, breathes through
a ventilator, and communicates via a sophisticated
Notwithstanding his disagreement with certain Israeli policies,
Hawking has visited the Jewish state in the past – reportedly as many as four
times. Since 1997, the computer that helps him communicate has been provided by
Intel and is based on an Intel Core i7 processor. The core architecture was
designed by a team in Israel that also designed the Pentium M mobile processor.
Also, Hawking has academic ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof.
Jacob Bekenstein, whose groundbreaking hypotheses regarding black holes and
thermodynamics Hawking originally contested but later affirmed.
been in Israel, benefitted from Israeli technology and shared in academic give
and take with a leading Israeli physicist, why on earth would Hawking suddenly
decide to join the obscure British Committee for the Universities of Palestine
in boycotting Israel? It made much more sense that Hawking’s debilitating health
problems, which he has inspiringly and bravely overcome, were the reason for his
no-show. Beyond wishing Hawking a speedy recovery, there was little to
It quickly became clear, however, that Kalman’s scoop, which had
generated so much controversy, was right on target.
In an email exchange
with the conference’s organizers, Hawking sent the following: “I accepted the
invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not
only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but
also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank.
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.”
has made his choice and he is, of course, entitled to do so. However, why has a
man who has benefitted so from the sort of technological innovation that
characterizes free, liberal-minded states such as Israel and who has engaged in
intellectual cross-fertilization with Israeli academics decided to heed the
requests of Palestinian academics? Hawking must know that a boycott, even one
supposedly directed only at the settlements, ignores the complexity of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It ignores Palestinian incitement to violence,
which goes on to this day. It ignores the broad support among Palestinians for
Hamas and other terrorist groups that aspire to destroy Israel, even within
pre-1967 lines. And it ignores the fact that even if Palestinians had their way
and were allowed to create their own state, it is doubtful that the basic human
rights of all Palestinians would be protected or that freedom of the press and
of academia would be respected.
Not only does Hawking’s boycott stifle
the free exchange of ideas and opinions so crucial to intellectual life, the BDS
campaign strengthens the most radical elements by refraining from placing at
least some of the blame for the conflict on Palestinian
Hawking should reconsider his sudden change of mind regarding
a visit to Israel.