There's an old joke about the definition of chutzpa. A boy murders his parents and pleas to the judge: "Have pity on me – I’m an orphan!"
Sadly, that comic story can be applied this week to Stephen Hawking, the brilliant Cambridge physicist who announced he was pulling out of the "Facing Tomorrow" conference in Israel next month, "based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott" of Israel. For such a clever man, his recent actions are shockingly foolish and short-sighted.
Short-sighted because, given Israel's central position in scientific and technological fields, to boycott the Jewish state would mean giving up on some of the most important advancements of recent years.
- Stephen Hawking himself, who has suffered from motor neuron disease for most of his 71 years, communicates using a mechanical voice system run by the Intel Core i7 Processor developed by the Israeli division of Intel.
- As a particle physicist, he is intimately involved in the most significant development in modern times: the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, found last year using Israeli-developed particle detectors.
- Last year, Hawking accepted a prestigious physics award worth $3 million – awarded by Yuri Milner, a major investor in Israeli high-tech.
Clearly, Prof. Hawking is not about to take out his Intel voice chip, return $3 million, and cease engaging in scientific debate. With so many areas of his life impacted and improved by Israeli dynamism, his refusal to visit the Jewish state comes across as a whole lotta chutzpa.
If Hawking wants to boycott a nation for perceived human rights outrages, he is targeting the wrong country.
In a week when the world's newspapers were filled with gruesome descriptions of profound human rights violations, it's ironic that Prof. Hawking would choose to target Israel for condemnation:
- Civil war is raging in Syria, with the Assad regime using chemical weapons against civilians
- Nigeria is massacring Islamist opponents of the government
- China is enforcing its brutal one-child policy through forced abortions
- Saudi Arabia is executing political prisoners and homosexuals
Of course, Israel is not be above criticism, but to single it out for special treatment is to hold it to a biased double-standard that is required of no other country in the world. To single out Israel, a liberal democracy with an open press, transparent judiciary, universal suffrage, and enshrined equal rights for all – as a country not only to be criticized, but utterly avoided – is total chutzpa.
Dr. Hawking, whose academic research is world-class, must also realize the key to bettering the world lies in fostering communication, not in shutting it down. By turning his back on all of Israel, he's sending a reactionary and hate-filled message at odds with the extensive academic collaboration that's marked his entire career. Chutzpa!
Hawking’s cancellation was a major embarrassment to Cambridge University.
Indeed, serious academics, such as Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian President of Al-Quds University, deplore academic boycotts. Dr. Nusseibeh has pioneered joint projects with Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Brandeis University near Boston.
Hawking’s cancellation was such an embarrassment to his employer, Cambridge University, that the school spokesman tried to claim it was due to “health reasons” and not as a boycott of Israel. The university was then forced to backtrack, after Hawking's office made perfectly clear that the decision was due to the boycott.
Wrong Side of History
Amazingly, the conference that Hawking is boycotting is designed to promote the very sort of tolerant, open world for which he surely yearns.
Held under the auspices of Israeli President Shimon Peres, the annual Facing Tomorrow conference brings together a diverse group of 5,000 world leaders and intellectuals for discussions on an array of pressing problems – including geopolitics, economics, environment and culture. Peres, a Nobel Prize laureate and Israel’s elder statesman, is using his considerable political capital to address some of the planet’s most pressing issues. To boycott this effort is not reasoned criticism but rather pure chutzpa – an attempt to destroy an Israeli initiative not on its merits, but simply because it originates in the Jewish state.
As a theoretical physicist, Hawking surely knows that his field was shaped by unsuccessful attempts to silence Jews in the past.
In the 1930s, Jewish scientists in Germany – including Albert Einstein – found themselves edged out of traditional academic fields and into burgeoning scientific areas such as particle physics. Einstein and Enrico Fermi (who left Europe to save his Jewish wife) came to the United States, and built much of the foundation of modern theoretical physics.
This latest boycott attempt to silence Jews has a long and infamous history. Hawking’s synergy with this movement to delegitimize the existence of the Jewish state is destined to prove on the wrong side of history.