"Abuse of Science"
Hawking’s boycott of Israel is intellectually and morally disreputable
London Times, May 10, 2013
Stephen Hawking ranks among the most famous scientists of the past century for his personal as well as intellectual achievements. A mind that has expanded knowledge of the origins of the Universe has also imbued its possessor with a mental resilience capable of surviving a debilitating disease. But brilliance in one sphere does not guarantee sense in another.
So it is with Professor Hawking, who revealed this week that he had withdrawn from a conference in Israel after being lobbied by Palestinian groups. His conduct is obtuse, mean-spirited and ungracious. Above all, it is alien to the spirit of critical thinking on which science and academic inquiry depend.
It is notable that Professor Hawking’s computer-based communication system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team. Whereas Israeli technology literally provides him with a voice, Professor Hawking supports a boycott campaign that seeks to penalise and isolate Israeli academics. But that modest irony should not be maligned as hypocrisy: Professor Hawking is entitled to express political views. Unfortunately his views on this subject are drearily simplistic and the inferences he draws from them are pernicious.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict understandably provokes strong passions. The Times is a longstanding supporter of Israel but this has never stopped us from criticising successive Israeli governments’ policies on settlements or dimmed our belief in a two-state solution with a sovereign Palestine. The campaign for an academic boycott of Israel is not only about the condition of Palestinians in the West Bank or Israel’s security policies in Gaza. The boycotters are hostile to the Jewish State, which they compare to the system of institutionalised racial discrimination practised in apartheid South Africa.
Israel has many flaws but a central and vital characteristic. It is a democracy in a part of the world where liberal political rights and free inquiry are scarce. An academic boycott is itself made possible by the critical ethos of Israeli culture. A closed society such as Iran, whose President denies the Holocaust, is hardly likely to be an international centre for scholarship in modern European history.
But even if Israel were a society as deformed as its opponents claim, an academic boycott would still be iniquitous. Conor Cruise O’Brien, the historian and polymath, criticised the academic boycott even of South Africa in the era of apartheid, as “an intellectually disreputable attempt to isolate what I know to be an honest, open and creative intellectual community”. He was right on this. Economic sanctions against a racist regime were right; penalising scholars for the deplorable policies of their government, over which they had no control, was not.
Though there is no serious analogy between Israel and apartheid, the scholars and venues whom the anti-Israel campaigners target are in a similar position to their South African counterparts a generation ago. Israeli academics may disagree strongly with the policies of their own Government, yet are being maligned and slandered on extraneous political grounds.
Professor Hawking should never have put his name to this campaign. It is an example of intellectual obscurantism masquerading as humanitarian concern. And that is stupid.