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Hawking's Moral Calculus

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Steven Hawking, the world-renowned physicist and celebrity, has cancelled a planned trip to Israel to participate in a conference sponsored by Israeli President Shimon Peres. His explanation: "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."


It's an odd world isn't it? By what inverted moral calculus does someone of Hawking's stature find it morally problematic to set foot on the soil of the region's only democracy? One wonders how many other nations has Hawking declined to visit in order to express his disapproval of their policies?

A glance at his CV reveals that Hawking visited the Soviet Union in 1973. Russia is no human rights picnic today (it is one of two chief sponsors of the Assad regime in Syria, for example), but those were the bad old days of Brezhnev, when uprisings for freedom in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were ruthlessly suppressed, the KGB inspired terror and scientists who displeased the regime were packed off to the Gulag.

The incredibly well traveled Hawking also visited Iran in 2007 for the International Physics Olympiad. His conscience was 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.

There is, alas, no shortage of nations in this world richly deserving of boycotts and other forms of pressure. Atrocities against civilians, including children, are a daily occurrence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. China, Cuba, Vietnam, Somalia, Mali, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, as well as the above-mentioned Russia and Iran and many others oppress their populations, flout human rights, disdain judicial procedures and muzzle the press.


Yet there is no worldwide BDS ("Boycott, Divest, Sanction") movement against any of those countries. Some have been sanctioned by the United Nations, or in the case of Cuba, boycotted by the United States. But only Israel is singled out for the BDS treatment by private organizations and individuals. Hawking joins entertainers Elvis Costello, Santana, Jon Bon Jovi and the Pixies, in declining to travel to Israel. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has started the process of divesting from Israel, joining the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the United Church of Canada, the Church of England Synod, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the World Council of Churches. Bishop Desmund Tutu has called for Israel to be treated just as apartheid South Africa was -- a call that Jimmy Carter has come close to echoing.

What do the advocates of BDS think they are expressing? Disapproval of Israel's settlement policies perhaps? But the boycott of Jewish businesses by the Arab states actually predates the creation of the state of Israel. The Arab League formally adopted a blanket boycott after Israel achieved independence in 1948 -- long before the West Bank had come under Israeli sovereignty. The wording of the Palestinian "Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel" lists "responsibility for the Nakba" as the first indictment. Nakba is the Palestinian term for Israel's birth -- it translates as the "catastrophe." In other words, Israel's first crime had nothing to do with territory, occupation, or the "peace process." The first crime was being born.


The Palestinian call itemizes other complaints against Israel. There is the obligatory comparison to apartheid South Africa, and a reference to the "racist, colonial wall."

The apartheid slur is damaging but utterly false. Israel is home to 1.6 million Arab citizens, which is about 20 percent of the population. There is no such thing as second-class citizenship. Arabs participate fully in Israeli life. There are Israeli Arabs in the Knesset, on the Supreme Court, in the Foreign Service, in the media, in the police force and even in the army. Do some have mixed feelings about their country? Sure. Does anyone in Stephen Hawking's country? And by the way, how many Jews serve in prominent posts in Arab countries?

As for the "racist, colonial wall," that's a reference to the security fence Israel finally erected to prevent Palestinians from detonating bombs on busses, in supermarkets and in pizza parlors. Israel responded to sustained terror attacks not by curtailing civil liberties, not by revenge attacks on Palestinian civilians and not by reoccupying territory ceded to the Palestinian Authority. No, they just built a fence. That was too much for the likes of Hawking -- which gives you the measure of the man and the movement he embraces.


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