Hypocrisy and double standard: An open letter to Stephen Hawking

This is a cross post from Haaretz by Carlo Strenger

By deciding not to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, one of the world’s leading scientists is singling out Israel and denying it has been under existential threat for most of its existence.

 

Dear Professor Hawking,

There are many reasons why you are considered one of the world’s leading scientists. As you know very well, one reason for your achievement is the ability to keep a mind of your own and to refuse caving in to pressure by the mainstream. Innovation is only possible if you are immune to such pressure.

Given my respect for your achievement I am surprised and saddened by your decision, reported today by The Guardian that you have cancelled your participation at this year’s President’s Conference in Jerusalem, and that you have joined those who call for an academic boycott of Israel. I would have expected a man of your standing and achievement not to be influenced by the pressure that was reportedly exerted on you to cancel your visit in Israel.

Let it first be said that I have been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories for many years, and that I have voiced this opposition with all means at my disposal. I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is indefensible morally, stupid politically and unwise strategically, and I will continue opposing it as long as I can.

This being said, I have always found it morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible that many British academics have been calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This call is based on a moral double standard that I would not expect from a community whose mission it is to maintain intellectual integrity.

Yes, I think that Israel is guilty of human right violations in the West Bank. But these violations are negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China, to mention only a small number of examples. Iran hangs hundreds of homosexuals every year; China has been occupying Tibet for decades, and you know of the terrible destruction Russia has inflicted in Chechnya. I have not heard from you or your colleagues who support an academic boycott against Israel that they boycott any of these countries.

But let me go one step further: Israel is accused of detaining Palestinians without trial for years. So is the USA, which, as you very well know, to this day has not closed Guantanamo Bay. Israel is accused of targeted killings of Palestinians suspected or known to be involved in terrorist acts. As is reported worldwide, the United States has been practicing targeted assassinations of terror suspects in many countries for years.

The question whether these detentions and targeted assassinations can be justified is weighty, and there are no simple answers. Personally I think that even in a war against terror democracies must make every conceivable effort to maintain the rule of law and avoid human rights violations.

Yet let us not forget that both Israel and the United States are in difficult situations. Israel was on the verge of a peace agreement with the Palestinian people when the second Intifada broke out. Daily Israelis were shredded into pieces by suicide bombings, and it is very difficult for Israeli politicians to convince Israelis to take risks for peace. The U.S. is still reeling from the trauma of 9/11. It has occupied two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade since. I happen to think that it was wrong to attack Iraq, in the same way that I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is wrong.

Professor Hawking: how can you and your colleagues who argue for an academic boycott of Israel justify your double standard by singling out Israel? You are simply denying that Israel has been under existential threat for most of its existence. To this day Hamas, one of the two major parties in Palestine, calls for Israel’s destruction, and its charter employs the vilest anti-Semitic language. To this day hardly a week goes by in which Iran and its proxy Hezbollah do not threaten to obliterate Israel, even though they have no direct conflict with Israel about anything.

Singling Israel out for academic boycott is, I believe, a case of profound hypocrisy. It is a way to ventilate outrage about the world’s injustices where the cost is low. I’m still waiting for the British academic who says he won’t cooperate with American institutions as long as Guantanamo is open, or as long as the U.S. continues targeted assassinations.

In addition to the hypocrisy, singling out Israel’s academia is pragmatically unwise, to put it mildly. Israel’s academia is largely liberal in its outlook, and many academics here have opposed Israel’s settlement policies for decades. But once again, British academics choose the easiest target to vent their rage in a way that does not contribute anything constructive to the Palestinian cause they support.

Israel, like any other country, can be criticized. But such criticism should not be based on shrill moralism and simplistic binary thinking – something I do not expect from academics. The real world is, unfortunately a messy, difficult place. Novelist Ian McEwan is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed … It’s not great if everyone stops talking” when he was criticized for coming to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize for Literature in 2011.

He certainly has a point. Living up to the standards of human rights and the ideals of democracy in an imperfect world is difficult. Major thinkers like Philip Bobbitt and Michael Ignatieff have invested deep and comprehensive thought into the difficult topic of how to maintain the human rights standard in a world threatened by terrorism.

Professor Hawking, I would expect from a man of your intellectual stature to get involved in the difficult task of grappling with these questions. Taking the simple way out of singling out Israel by boycotting it academically does not behoove you intellectually or morally.

If your cancelation was indeed a function of pressures and not from health reasons, as stated by your university following The Guardian’s report, I would respect it if you were to reconsider your decision and come to the President’s Conference.

Sincerely,

Carlo Strenger

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