[Published 13 May 2013]
The decision by eminent physicist Stephen Hawking to not attend the Presidential Conference organised by Israel’s President - Shimon Peres - has aroused dismay by his Israeli hosts and applause from the Palestinian academic community.
This year’s Presidential Conference is expected to attract 5,000 attendees from around the world, including academics, artists and former heads of state.
Former US president Bill Clinton, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, Prince Albert of Monaco and Barbra Streisand have accepted invitations - according to organisers.
Hawking’s reasons for cancelling his earlier acceptance of the invitation were set out in writing to the event organisers:
“I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank.
However, 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.”
Were the reasons Hawking gave really those that led to his refusing to attend?
What does Hawking mean by stating that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster?
After all the current Israeli Government has reiterated it stands ready to resume negotiations with the PLO without pre-conditions - which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected.
Hawking must surely be aware that Abbas has taken unilateral steps outside the negotiating processes laid down under the Oslo Accords and the Bush Roadmap including:
1. Disbanding the Palestinian Authority - the party designated by the Oslo Accords to negotiate with Israel on a final peace treatyWhat steps does Hawking believe Israel must now take to avert disaster?
2. Seeking and gaining admission of Palestine as a member state of UNESCO and a non-member State observer at the UN
3. Declaring himself President of the country of Palestine on 3 January this year and traversing the world’s capitals seeking recognition and the establishing of ambassadors and embassies in the world’s most recently created country.
How can Israel be expected to do anything to advance Oslo and the Roadmap when Abbas has repudiated both signed agreements by proclaiming a country outside the terms of those agreements?
What in the emails from the Palestinian academics persuaded Hawking to not attend the conference?
Samia al-Botmeh of Birzeit University in the West Bank provided a clue when she told the Guardian:
“We tried to communicate two points to him. First, that Israel is a colonial entity that involves violations of the rights of the Palestinians, including academic freedom, and then asking him to stand in solidarity with Palestinian academic colleagues who have called for solidarity from international academics in the form of boycotting Israeli academia and academic institutions,”
Was Hawking persuaded that Israel is a colonialist entity and not entitled to remain a member state of the United Nations?
Does Hawking- like the PLO - regard the decisions of the League of Nations and the United Nations illegal and void?
Does Hawking believe in collective punishment of the entire population of Israel for the decisions of a democratically elected Government that a large segment of that population did not vote for?
Hawking visited Iran in 2007 for the International Physics Olympiad. His conscience was then apparently untroubled by the stoning of adulteresses, imprisonment without trial, torture and the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities — to say nothing of arming terrorists and threatening to wipe countries off the map.
Will Hawking now boycott Chinese academia in the future while China continues to occupy Tibet and repress the Falun Gong?
Has Hawking ever spoken to his academic contacts in the West Bank about the indiscriminate firing of tens of thousands of shells into Israeli population centres - acknowledged as war crimes by his academic colleague UN Special Rapporteur Professor Richard Falk?
Asked by The Jerusalem Post about Hawking’s boycott - Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:
“He should investigate the truth, he is a scientist. He should study the facts and draw the necessary conclusions: Israel is an island of reason, moderation and a desire for peace.”
Hawking certainly must have made some investigations to come to the decision he has. It would help to understand his position if he were to share the results.
Perhaps Hawking’s conduct was best summed up by analyst Nathan Harden:
“When one’s disagreement with a nation’s political regime justifies the shunning and boycott of that nation’s scientists and scholars, we are on dangerous ground. Hawking and other politically liberal scholars who participate in the academic boycott of Israel are hypocrites. They are quick to profess devotion to tolerance and academic freedom, but they don’t live up to those ideals — not when it comes to Israel, anyway.
If it has become acceptable to support an academic boycott of an entire nationality (all Israelis), we aren’t far off from a future in which it will be acceptable to back an academic boycott of an entire ethnicity (all Jews).”
Every man is entitled to express his opinion - but he should be prepared to justify and defend his decisions with detailed and reasoned arguments when those decisions are challenged.
Hawking’s failure to adequately answer his hosts is regrettable