Thursday, May 09, 2013

Was Stephen Hawking Simply Badgered Into Boycotting Israeli Conference?

Palestinian academics sent a barrage of letters to Hawking in recent weeks in an attempt to persuade him to join the boycott movement.
Furore deepens over Stephen Hawking's Israel boycott, The Guardian, May 8, 2013

The constant prodding of physicist Stephen Hawking by BDS activists as described by the Guardian explains the apparent contradiction in Hawking's decision not to attend the conference in Israel.

After all, as Haaretz points out, Hawking has felt free to visit Israel numerous times in the past:
Hawking, however, has already visited Israel four times, including the last time, in 2006, at the invitation of the British Embassy. During that trip, he visited universities in Israel and the Palestinian Authority and said he hoped to meet Israeli and Palestinian scientists.
Here is a video of his last visit, in 2006:

During that visit, Hawking was interviewed by Yair Lapid. During the interview (5:35 into the interview), Lapid asked Hawking about his impressions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yair Lapid interviewing physicist Stephen Hawking
Yair Lapid interviewing physicist Stephen Hawking during his visit in Israel in 2006.
From screenshot of the video
Lapid: When you come to a place like Israel, that is ruled by conflict, with an emotional and religious and instinctive, do you have the scientist need to yell at us stop, go by logic, there must be another way to conduct this?

Hawking: I was last in Israel in 1990 and it was very sad to see the wall and the change since then. There have been mistakes on both sides. Can't you now come together and agree a sensible solution.

Lapid: What exactly is the purpose of your visit here?

Hawking: I have visited Israel and the Palestinian territories before in a more peaceful time. I wanted to see for myself what the situation is now. Often what you read in the newspapers is not what it is like on the ground.
Considering his acknowledgement that it is necessary to check out the facts for oneself, it is odd that Hawking should allow himself to be influenced by the arguments of Palestinian professors.

But apparently he wasn't. In his letter expressing his decision not to go to Israel, Hawking simply writes:
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.
Hawking does not ascribe his decision to an argument or any specific wrongdoing by Israel -- though he has clearly stated in the past that he felt both Israelis and Arabs had made mistakes. Instead, Hawking describes his decision as being based purely on the pressure of the Arab professors.

It is this bullying that has been objected to, as the Guardian reports:
Daniel Taub, the Israeli ambassador to London, said: "It is a great shame that Professor Hawking has withdrawn from the president's conference … Rather than caving into pressure from political extremists, active participation in such events is a far more constructive way to promote progress and peace."

The Wolf Foundation, which awarded Hawking the Wolf prize in physics in 1988, said it was "sad to learn that someone of Professor Hawking's standing chose to capitulate to irrelevant pressures and will refrain from visiting Israel". [emphasis added]
Maybe if Professor Hawking was in better health, he would have been able to stand up to the pressure.

Instead, he was exploited.

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