Steven Hawking Joins Boycott Against Israel
In a move that surprised and disappointed academics, admirers, and political figures worldwide, famed British physicist Steven Hawking has joined the boycott movement. Although Hawking had visited Israel several times, this month he reversed his prior agreement to participate in the Fifth Annual Israeli Presidential Conference, with the stated reason of boycotting Israel. As reported in The Guardian, "his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there."
"Never has a scientist of this stature boycotted Israel," said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.
According to the New York Times, organizers of the fifth annual Israeli Presidential Conference, held under the auspices of President Shimon Peres, said they had received a letter from Dr. Hawking, a longtime Cambridge professor, announcing his decision. Cambridge initially issued a statement indicating that Dr. Hawking withdrew on the basis of his health and only after learning that Hawking had written directly about his actual reasons did Cambridge revise its announcement to say that he would not be attending "based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott," according to The Associated Press.
The goal of the conference, called "Facing Tomorrow 2013," is to explore the developments shaping the future of Israel, the Jewish people and the world. Its program includes former heads of state, academics, artists and business executives. Former President Bill Clinton is to receive an award from Mr.
Peres. Peres was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hawking, who has visited Iran and Russia in order to attend conferences in the past, singles out the only democracy in the Middle East as the only nation to boycott. Clearly, Hawking has not uniformly applied any standards to decide where he is willing to speak. Does the boycott of Israel reveal such a fundamental anti-Israel prejudice on the part of Dr Hawking that he is willing to sacrifice academic freedom for this cause? Does he hate Israel more than he loves academic freedom? Or is he being used by the BDS movement to advance their cause? The only way to know is to see if Hawking publicly leaves this disappointing path he has chosen.
A Letter from IAFI's President
Like many of you, I admire Steven Hawking. Why? Because of Dr. Hawking's brilliance, his intellectual prowess, his achievements, his tenacity and drive despite overwhelming barriers. In fact, I admire Hawking for some of the very same reasons that I admire the achievements of the State of Israel.
How painful and ironic, therefore, to find out that Steven Hawking supports an academic boycott of Israel. I do not agree with Hawking's politics, but I do not dismiss him as a fellow scientist. His theories do not lose an iota of significance because I disagree with his politics. I only wish that Dr Hawking would extend that same courtesy to his Israeli colleagues.
By all means, speak out against Israeli policies if you disagree with them - IAFI does not weigh in on politics - but please, Dr. Hawking, do not help to marginalize an entire nation of brilliant, forward-looking achievers because you disagree with the politics of their government. To do so raises a politically motivated barrier to academic freedom, compromising that freedom in the process. You, of all people, should prize access, virtual as well as physical.
IAFI was founded in order to support the often difficult task of separating one's admiration for a person's science from disagreeing with that same person's politics.
I find it significant that Dr Hawking cites the advice of his academic contacts as a factor in making his decision to boycott. IAFI members may have diverse political opinions, but presumably we share a belief that politics should not be a litmus test to determine access to academia, science, and freedom of thought. Academic boycotts are anathema to those who value academic freedom.
The boycotters proselytize their movement. People like us, the IAFI anti-boycotters, need to enter the conversation in active ways within our own circles of friends and colleagues. Let's stem the tide.
The challenge for us is how to convince colleagues like Steven Hawking of the insidious anti-intellectual stance they are taking by supporting an academic boycott. Large scale petitions and letters to the editor are useful, but I believe that much can be accomplished by private conversations between IAFI members and individuals who are struggling with their own decisions about how to reconcile their professional lives with their politics. Use Hawking's shocking decision to begin conversations in your circles of influence.
IAFI actively assists in bringing world experts to scientific meetings in Israel as anti-boycott measures.
With your help, IAFI can expand its efforts and increase the connections and opportunities for Israeli scientists and academics. Please support IAFI in these difficult times.
Andrew R. Marks, M.D.
President and Founding Member of IAFI
Chairman, Dept of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics