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
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.
When Matthew Kalman writing for
demonstrated that, as rumored, Hawking had withdrawn from next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
It is well known that Hawking, 71, suffers from a form of
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which causes progressive
He breathes through a ventilator and communicates via a
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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