The Palestinian Narrative Captures Stephen Hawking

Since 2008 an Israeli Presidential Conference has been held annually in Jerusalem. This year the Fifth Conference, organized by President Shimon Peres and entitled "Face Tomorrow," is to be held on June 18-20, 2013. The objective of the conferences is to bring together leaders and thinkers in a variety of fields to discuss issues that will confront the world in the future. Among those invited this year are Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Mikhail Gorbachev, Daniel Kahneman, and Prince Albert II of Monaco. The conference has now captured the attention of the world because of the decision on May 8, 2013 of the 71-year-old Stephen Hawking, world-renowned astrophysicist, head of the mathematics and physics department at Cambridge University, to cancel his participation in it.

Hawking is admired not only for his scientific contribution in expanding knowledge of the origins of the universe and black holes, but also for his remarkable personal courage in dealing with his illness. He has lived with motor neurone disease which is related to the progressive neurogenerative ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, uses a wheelchair and needs assistance in breathing since he had a tracheostomy in 1985. In spite of this he has travelled around the world, including a number of visits to Israel , the last of which was in 2006.

Hawking had accepted the invitation to the conference but changed his mind as a result of pressure from colleagues in Britain and the United States (some of whom are of Jewish origin), and Palestinian academics to join in the boycott of Israel. Twenty British academics sent Hawking a letter expressing their surprise and disappointment he had accepted the invitation. Israel he was told, "systematically discriminates against the Palestinians who make up 20 per cent of its population...and its treatment of the people of Gaza amounts to collective punishment." In addition, the promotion by Israel of its cultural and scientific standing, "is a deliberate policy of camouflaging its oppressive acts behind a cultured veneer."

It was to be expected that Noam Chomsky, an unrelenting critic of Israel and supporter of divestment and boycott, would be party to the overall pressure. Other well-known critics added their support. Their behavior indicates the fact that despite brilliance in their own fields, scientists are not necessarily or inherently knowledgeable about political and social issues, nor engaged in objective analysis beyond their own areas of expertise.

One of those who signed the letter is Professor Malcolm Levitt of Southampton University in Britain, a fellow of the Royal Society since 2007, an expert in magnetic resonance, a technique for examining the structure of matter. Professor Levitt who had done some of his postdoctoral research in Israel now remarked that "Israel has a totally explicit policy of making life impossible for the non-Jewish population and I find it totally unacceptable." He supports boycott as a means to force Israel to become "normal," He has made no secret of his views that to visit or collaborate with Israel is implicitly to support "ethnic cleansing by a racist state." In exceptionally harsh language, surprising from a distinguished scientist, he has written of the existence in what he calls "historic Palestine" of several large prison camps in which most of the non-Jewish population are confined and controlled. He does not regard Israel as a normal country, and argues it should not be treated as such.

Even more important in the decision of Stephen Hawking was the influence of Palestinians and pro-Palestinian organizations. Hawkins himself said he had received a number of emails from Palestinian academics: "they are unanimous that I should respect the boycott... Had I attended (the conference) I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster." Indeed, in a previous occasion in 2009 Hawking had been critical of Israel for its response, which he considered "plain out of proportion," to the rocket fire by Hamas in Gaza.

In this critique Hawking was following the lead of the academic groups who have already called for boycott of Israel. Among them are the Teachers' Union of Ireland, the American members of the Association for Asian American Studies, and the British University and College Union. But the most important and relevant group is the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, (BRICUP) an organization that was ostensibly set up to support Palestinian universities, but which in actuality functions to "oppose the continued illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands with its concomitant breaches of international conventions of human rights."

The chair of BRICUP is Jonathan Rosenhead, an emeritus professor of operational research at the London School of Economics, whose activities have gone far beyond the normal expectations of the academic world. Rosenhead actually took part in the flotilla to break the blockade of Gaza, was a participant in the disruption of the performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in London on September 1, 2011, and announced his intention to disrupt the performance of the Habima Theater company at the Globe Theater in London in May 2012.

The BRICUP parallels the activity of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) organized in Ramallah in 2004 by Palestinian academics in response to the call two years earlier for a comprehensive educational, cultural, and academic boycott of Israel.

In all this the irony for Hawking cannot be overlooked. A boycott of Israel would include any association with scientific research. Yet Hawking's own life is dependent on the computer-based communication system that runs on the Intel Core i7 chip designed and produced by Israel. Israeli scientists are currently at the cutting edge of research to find a more effective treatment or a cure for ALS. It is not unfair to ask if the boycotters who are unwilling to join Israel in its scientific research to find cures understand the consequences for Hawking. Does this supposed empathy for the Palestinians mean more to them than Hawking's life?

The actions of the boycotters and of Hawking himself in this instance are shameful. Criticism of specific actions of Israel, as of all political and social systems, is eminently justifiable. But the arguments of the boycotters, some of whom seem to be self-hating Jews, go far beyond legitimate criticism of issues such as possible Palestinian inequities or settlements in the West Bank to evoke implicitly or otherwise the elimination of the State of Israel.

Israel is a democratic country in which intelligent debate and discussion are encouraged. All academics should have recognized that boycotts in any country of intellectual activity are contradictory to their very essence.

They should also recognize that Israeli academics, scientists, cultural and artistic performers are not government or official agents. Are academics who call for a boycott becoming devoid of common sense because they have accepted the Palestinian narrative of victimhood, a narrative that persists in blaming others for their own deficiencies? Professor Hawking, you do not belong in this bigoted and ignoble group seeking the destruction of Israel.