Commentary Magazine


Topic: Stephen Hawking

The Hawking Fallacy: No Compromise With Celebrity Boycotters

The decision of science superstar Stephen Hawking to join in the boycott of Israel was a major coup for those working to delegitimize the Jewish state. Hawking’s reputation as a man of reason and a media magnet gave a boost to a movement whose triumphs to date have been confined to figures dwelling in the fever swamps of the far left or right. While many Western European intellectuals have bought into the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) appeal, Hawking’s celebrity is such that he may help anti-Israel activists gain traction in the United States where they have had little success in getting mainstream attention or support.

But there is another downside to Hawking’s move. Rather than stiffen the resolve of the pro-Israel community to stand up against the economic war against the Jewish state, seeing a big name join the crowd piling on in this fashion has the effect of discouraging some and causing others to rationalize the boycotters. That’s the upshot of a couple of posts on the subject over at the Open Zion blog at the Daily Beast where left-wing columnists saying the right reaction to the boycott is to agree with its supporters that Israel is in the wrong. Rather than to fight a boycott that even some of them will admit is tainted by anti-Semitism, they council surrender to it. Thus, although adding Hawking to the roster of those who hypocritically and wrongly seek to ostracize Israel, perhaps the most important aspect of this is the way it could lead some who ought to know better to make their peace with the boycott instead of treating it as just another instance of Jew-hatred.

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The decision of science superstar Stephen Hawking to join in the boycott of Israel was a major coup for those working to delegitimize the Jewish state. Hawking’s reputation as a man of reason and a media magnet gave a boost to a movement whose triumphs to date have been confined to figures dwelling in the fever swamps of the far left or right. While many Western European intellectuals have bought into the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) appeal, Hawking’s celebrity is such that he may help anti-Israel activists gain traction in the United States where they have had little success in getting mainstream attention or support.

But there is another downside to Hawking’s move. Rather than stiffen the resolve of the pro-Israel community to stand up against the economic war against the Jewish state, seeing a big name join the crowd piling on in this fashion has the effect of discouraging some and causing others to rationalize the boycotters. That’s the upshot of a couple of posts on the subject over at the Open Zion blog at the Daily Beast where left-wing columnists saying the right reaction to the boycott is to agree with its supporters that Israel is in the wrong. Rather than to fight a boycott that even some of them will admit is tainted by anti-Semitism, they council surrender to it. Thus, although adding Hawking to the roster of those who hypocritically and wrongly seek to ostracize Israel, perhaps the most important aspect of this is the way it could lead some who ought to know better to make their peace with the boycott instead of treating it as just another instance of Jew-hatred.

Let’s understand straight off that those, such as Beast columnist Mathew Kalman, who “broke” the story of Hawking’s joining the boycott in Britain’s Guardian, and who believes the scientist can’t be criticized for this move, are wrong.

Kalman took some abuse on the Internet from supporters of Israel when Cambridge University initially denied his report before confirming it. But while he’s entitled have a laugh at the expense of those who called him a liar about this, what he really gets wrong is the nature of this event. Joining the boycott of Israel isn’t a gesture of a disillusioned friend. It’s an action that places someone amid the ranks of those working not to “reform” policies but who deny Israel’s right to exist or to defend itself.

Kalman writes:

What I’d like to know—apart from whether any of my mealy-mouthed Twitter critics are going to retract their insults—is what effect Hawking’s decision will have on Israel’s leaders. Will they hunker down behind a security wall of denial, or will someone, somewhere in Jerusalem ask why a man of Hawking’s standing, who has visited Israel four times in the past and was willing to come again despite his age and ill-health, has become so alienated, so quickly, from a country he previously admired so much?

What’s wrong here is that the BDS movement wishes to deny Israel the same rights of sovereign existence and self-defense that no one would think to deny another people. It singles out democratic Israel for special treatment while ignoring genuine humanitarian crises and horrific tyrannies. There is a word for such treatment and it is prejudice and such bias against Jews is called anti-Semitism, which is something that no one in the Jewish community or decent society should be willing to excuse. Hawkings, like everyone else who buys into the lies about Israel, deserves to be treated as having made common cause with Jew-haters, not a wise man that deserves a hearing.

What’s more, attempts to rationalize Hawking’s position such as Kalman’s is to believe that Israel has done something in recent years that merits pariah status is to ignore everything that has happened in the last 20 years of peace processing whereby Israel has invited the PLO into the West Bank, given up territory, removed settlements, withdrawn from Gaza and made three separate offers of a Palestinian state in 2000, 2001 and 2008, only to be refused each time and answered with more terrorism and intransigence. In order to interpret the events of this period in such a manner as to conclude that Israel must be punished and the Palestinians must be rewarded you have to either be willfully ignorant or prejudiced. In either case, such a conclusion does not exactly measure up to what is generally considered the scientific method of discovering the truth.

Israel isn’t perfect but responsibility for the lack of peace and the continuing plight of the Palestinians rests with their leaders who have refused peace. Until their political culture changes and makes it possible for them to recognize the legitimacy of Israel, no matter where its borders are drawn, the end of the conflict is not in sight.

Agreeing with Kalman is another writer for the Beast, British activist Hannah Weisfeld, who says the proper response to Hawking’s statement, is to agree with him about Israel’s wrongdoing and pressure it to treat the Palestinians better. Weisfeld, who runs a group that seems to be a clone of America’s J Street, takes a fatalistic view about anti-Israel incitement, which she says is the cause célèbre of our time even though human rights violations elsewhere are far more serious. Like her blog’s editor, Peter Beinart, she seems to think the anti-Semitic tone of many BDS supporters doesn’t make the Palestinians any less sympathetic. Weisfeld seems to take the point of view that there’s no use being mad about Hawking or other boycotters. Rather than fight back, she seems to be telling us its time for Israel and its friends to surrender to foreign blackmail.

But the right response to Hawking is not agreement with his prejudicial behavior that would isolate those who are responsible for some of the technology that makes it possible for him to function despite his illness as well as scientists that are working for its cure.

Weisfeld is right that fashionable leftist opinion has rejected Israel but thinking people should answer distortions and lies with truth, not appeasement. Hawking’s fans must accept the fact that he has joined the ranks of the haters and classify him as such. Doing so requires courage that many who dwell in liberal strongholds or in academia lack. But that will not excuse their cowardice if they fail to speak up against this monstrous and fundamentally anti-Semitic movement against Israel.

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Stephen Hawking Signs Up to the Academic Boycott of Israel

There was much relief when, earlier today, a spokesman for Cambridge University in England released a statement denying that Stephen Hawking, the renowned British physicist, had invoked the academic boycott of Israel as the reason for his decision to withdraw from the “Facing Tomorrow” conference, which will be hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem in June.

As it turns out, Cambridge spoke too soon. Tim Holt, the spokesman who said that Hawking had backed out for health reasons, was compelled to issue the following clarification:

“We have now received confirmation from Professor Hawking’s office that a letter was sent on Friday to the Israeli President’s office regarding his decision not to attend the Presidential Conference, based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.

“We had understood previously that his decision was based purely on health grounds having been advised by doctors not to fly.”

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There was much relief when, earlier today, a spokesman for Cambridge University in England released a statement denying that Stephen Hawking, the renowned British physicist, had invoked the academic boycott of Israel as the reason for his decision to withdraw from the “Facing Tomorrow” conference, which will be hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem in June.

As it turns out, Cambridge spoke too soon. Tim Holt, the spokesman who said that Hawking had backed out for health reasons, was compelled to issue the following clarification:

“We have now received confirmation from Professor Hawking’s office that a letter was sent on Friday to the Israeli President’s office regarding his decision not to attend the Presidential Conference, based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.

“We had understood previously that his decision was based purely on health grounds having been advised by doctors not to fly.”

The initial doubt over the whether the Hawking story was true is easy to understand. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has a track record of lying about its successes. Over the last few years, many of their claims about individuals and companies endorsing the boycott–including PGGM, the largest pension fund in the Netherlands, Hampshire College, Harvard University, the academic retirement fund TIAA-CREF, and telecoms giant Motorola–were quickly exposed as false. Additionally, the signal failure of the movement’s academic arm to enlist any prominent, respected scholar to its cause naturally sowed doubts about Hawking’s apparent endorsement. Finally, it seemed difficult to believe that Hawking, whose own achievements owe a great deal to the Israeli physicist Jacob Bekenstein, would approve something as crude and as ugly as a boycott.

What, exactly, has Hawking signed up to? At the outset, the idea that his decision is related to discomfort with Israel’s settlement policies should be dispensed with. The Palestinian Call for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is refreshingly clear that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is simply one element of a much more comprehensive assault upon Israel’s legitimacy:

…Israel’s colonial oppression of the Palestinian people, which is based on Zionist ideology, comprises the following:

  • Denial of its responsibility for the Nakba — in particular the waves of ethnic cleansing and dispossession that created the Palestinian refugee problem — and therefore refusal to accept the inalienable rights of the refugees and displaced stipulated in and protected by international law;
  • Military occupation and colonization of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza since 1967, in violation of international law and UN resolutions;
  • The entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa.

In plain speaking, then, the ultimate aim of the boycott movement is to dismantle the State of Israel in its entirety, not simply to secure its withdrawal from disputed territories. We are not talking here about, in the words of the Associated Press, a strategy “designed to bring pressure on the Israeli government,” but the wholesale rejection of anything or anyone associated with Israel. It is for this reason, and rightly, that the boycott movement can credibly be described as anti-Semitic, for it seeks to deny only the Jewish people the right of self-determination, and viciously caricatures the Jewish state as a carbon copy of the old apartheid regime in South Africa.

I make this point in anticipation of the coming tussle over whether Stephen Hawking is or isn’t anti-Semitic. His supporters will certainly portray him as a fearless opponent of colonialism, a man who nobly condemned the war that ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq as a war crime, and who is now being “smeared”–the favored word of anti-Zionists everywhere–as a Jew-hater. Detractors will doubtless point out that Hawking’s thinking is riddled with moral idiocy (why pick on Israel while remaining silent on serial human rights violators like North Korea and Iran?) and hypocrisy (major advances in combating Lou Gehrig’s disease, which Hawking has suffered from for more than 40 years, have been made in Israel).

The overriding consideration is that, regardless of Hawking’s personal attitudes toward Jews–which no one bar his closest confidantes could credibly claim knowledge of–he has associated himself with a movement that seeks to eliminate, in the form of the State of Israel, the one guarantee Jews have against a repeat of the genocidal persecutions of the last century. That same consideration should govern any assessment of his decision to withdraw from the Jerusalem conference.

It’s also worth noting that while Hawking’s trophy cabinet doesn’t contain a Nobel Prize, it does include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by President Obama in 2009. One might reasonably ask whether such an award was appropriate, given Hawking’s affinity with political movements that are antithetical to the very idea of freedom. And one might also ask whether Hawking, for the sake of consistency, will now return the medal, in protest against Obama’s decision to bestow the same honor, last year, upon none other than Shimon Peres.

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