Stephen Hawking Israel boycott sparks furore

Back to Earth: Hawking is now in the midst of one the world’s fiercest debates © Getty Images

The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most divisive topics in global affairs. Now, the world’s most famous scientist has sided with academics who refuse to deal with the Jewish state.

Stephen Hawking is used to dealing with daunting subjects. His books and essays have addressed, among other things: time, black holes, gravity and the origins of the universe. But now he has spoken out on an issue which is in some ways even knottier than theoretical physics: Arab-Israeli relations in the Middle East.

Hawking, a world-famous cosmologist who suffers from severe motor neurone disease, was due to speak this June at a prestigious Israeli science conference in Israel. But this week he abruptly cancelled the engagement. Why? Not for academic or personal reasons, but as a political protest against the Israeli government and its treatment of Palestinians.

The State of Israel was created in 1948 as a home for Jews around the world, who had been marginalised and persecuted for centuries. But the territory it covered (until then known as ‘Palestine’) was already inhabited by ethnic Arabs who had themselves suffered from long term oppression.

From Israel’s earliest days, its politics were dominated by tension between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. After decades of constant hostility and occasional war, the country became divided along ethnic lines. Israel itself is predominantly Jewish, while Arabs are concentrated in Gaza and the West Bank.

These 'Palestinian Territories', while self-governing and supported by UN aid, are permanently occupied by the Israeli army. Their roads scattered with military checkpoints and economic conditions are disastrous, with unemployment close to 50%.

Some campaigners compare this to the racist system of apartheid that once ruled South Africa, and refuse to have any dealings with Israel. This ‘boycott’ is particularly powerful among academics – and this week it gained its most prestigious advocate yet.

Taking sides

Israel, say supporters of the boycott, is ruled by a regime of systematic persecution, ethnic segregation and violent oppression. No principled intellectual should provide such a state with legitimacy by accepting its hospitality or gracing its institutions. And according to Stephen Hawking, Palestinian academics are ‘unanimous’ in backing the boycott: to attend the conference would mean taking sides with an oppressor against the oppressed.

But many academics, in Israel and elsewhere, are furious at Hawking’s decision. The tensions in the Middle East are not simply a matter of persecution, they say: Israelis are justified in feeling threatened by their neighbours, and we must respect their right to self-defence. The current situation is regrettable, but it can only be solved through dialogue. Aggressively taking sides is foolish and counterproductive at best – and at worst, this singling out of the world’s only Jewish state carries ugly echoes of antisemitism.

You Decide

  1. Is Stephen Hawking justified in boycotting the conference in Israel?
  2. ‘If Israel's existence is under threat, it has the right to do anything it thinks is necessary in self-defence.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Do some research and make a very simple timeline of the Israeli-Arab conflict, beginning in 1948.
  2. Imagine you are a Palestinian, and sum up in a single sentence why you feel you have the right to live peacefully in the land of your birth. Then do the same from the perspective of an Israeli.

Some People Say...

“Scientists should stick to science, rather than getting themselves mixed up in politics.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This whole Israel-Palestine issue seems so fraught and complicated. I don’t know what to believe.
That’s very sensible. It can be difficult to think clearly about such a polarised issue without immediately taking sides, so it’s wise to reserve your opinion until you know and understand more. That doesn’t mean, though, that you should just stop thinking about the question altogether.
Why? What’s it got to do with me?
Peace in the Middle East is crucial for global security, for a start. And in our globalised and interconnected world, distance is not an excuse for disregarding an issue. Israel owes its very existence to decisions made by the United Nations, and governments around the world are involved in the peace process to this day – probably including yours.

Word Watch

Cosmologist
A scientist who studies the origins and fundamental laws of the universe.
Motor neurone disease
A condition that affects someone’s ability to control their muscles. Hawking was diagnosed when he was 21, and his paralysis has gradually worsened ever since. Today he can move almost none of his muscles, and speaks using a specially designed computer.
Marginalised and persecuted
After the Jews were forced out of their Middle Eastern homeland in the Second Century, most became scattered throughout Europe. Here they were treated with suspicion, kept in ghettoes and occasionally massacred or exiled en masse. This prejudice culminated in the Nazi Holocaust, when roughly six million Jews were systematically killed.
Apartheid
From a South African word meaning roughly ‘apart’. People from different races were banned from mixing, and political participation was preserved for the whites, who also controlled the vast majority of the wealth. It should be noted that while Palestinians in Israel are marginalised in many ways, the state does not actively espouse an ideology of racial segregation.
Threatened by their neighbours
Militants regularly launch rockets from Gaza into Israel, and neighbouring Lebanon harbours a group called Hezbollah who are sworn enemies of the Jewish state. A little further afield is Iran, whose leaders have threatened to ‘wipe Israel off the map’.
Antisemitism
Racism against Jewish people. Some people object that other states carry out equally controversial policies without provoking as much outrage as Israel, and suggest that this is down to ethnicity.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.