Stephen Hawking’s decision not to attend an Israeli conference strikes against the principles of academic freedom, writes George Kerevan
SHOULD UK academics boycott work with Israeli universities? Yes, says Stephen Hawking, the most famous physicist since Einstein (himself a prominent Zionist and also, as a socialist, a stout promoter of Jewish-Arab co-operation).
Hawking is in the news for reversing his original decision to attend the annual conference organised by Simon Peres, Israel’s president and joint winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat. The conference, brings together world leaders to discuss generic problems facing the world – a vague agenda but hardly pro-Zionist. So, while Palestinian leader Arafat was willing to talk with Peres, Hawking has succumbed to the fashionable view that Israel should be boycotted – economically, culturally and academically.
Severing academic links with Israel is pursued vigorously by the far left in Britain, principally through the University and College Union Left, a ginger group in the main lecturers’ trade union that is dominated by the Socialist Workers Party. The British Marxist left has adopted Palestinian nationalism as its moral crusade.
After withdrawing from the Peres conference, Hawking released a letter stating: “Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”
So why didn’t he attend and say that, adding his prestige to the argument? That would have been logical and more effective, as his Israeli hosts would have had to engage with the great scientist face to face. However, by pulling out, Hawking has made himself appear not just another opponent of Israel, but a highly unconvincing one, having seemed to change his mind the moment he came under pressure from the boycotters. Hawking has visited Israel four times, most recently in 2006, when he delivered lectures at both Israeli and Palestinian universities. He also happily accepted the Wolf Prize in physics from the Israel-based Wolf Foundation. Presumably he is giving back the money – or donating it to a West Bank university?
Hawkings’ (inconsistent) stand is dangerous because it violates the cardinal virtues of scientific discourse that emerged with the Enlightenment: that the rational pursuit of knowledge, unencumbered by political or religious prejudice, betters all mankind in the end. That the free pursuit of truth is more likely to undermine ignorance and oppression than strengthen it. And that ending national and religious enmities is better achieved by academics meeting and co-operating, than by keeping them apart.
Of course, free academic discourse does not necessarily provide instant solutions to great political problems. But denying academic freedom makes those problems worse. Supporters of the boycott will reply that Israel is a colonial entity that limits the academic freedom of Palestinians. For the record, I think Israel’s 46-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has been a disaster for Israel itself – militarising the state, encouraging religious fundamentalism in both communities and cutting Israel off from its friends.
Equally, I remember that Gaza was originally part of Egypt and the West Bank part of Jordan, and that Israel did not “colonise” them but occupied them in self-defence during the Six-Day War in 1967. I also remember that neither Cairo nor Amman respected the human rights of the local Palestinians during their “occupation”. And I know that the Egyptians and Jordanians were only too happy to abandon these territories to the Israelis rather than confront emerging troublesome Palestinian nationalism.
Israel was not founded by religious “colonisers” but by left-wing socialists – SWP please note. Certainly, many Jews came to Israel from abroad, fleeing the pogroms of Europe. But they also came fleeing pogroms in North Africa, Iraq and Iran. The factious ethnic shifts in the modern Middle East are not down to Zionism but more complex processes: Arab nationalism has also left its negative mark on the region’s indigenous Christians, Armenians and Kurds.
My point is that the history of Israel and Palestine has been thoroughly distorted by the boycott campaign. If anyone is naïve in this debate, it is the far left who think the abolition of Israel will result in a secular, democratic Palestine with free universities teaching the theory of evolution to women students. Quite the opposite.
The best answer to the problem of Israeli and Palestinian co-existence remains the negotiation of a Two State solution. Unfortunately, the so-called Arab Spring (which has encouraged Sunni fundamentalism) and the as yet unfathomable consequences of the Syrian civil war have pushed both sides on to the defensive. Israel prefers “facts on the ground”, which means more settlements on Palestinian territory. That strategy only isolates Israel from its friends and plays directly into the hands of those who lay blame for he present impasse solely at the door of the Jewish state.
Among these I include the Church of Scotland, which has blundered into the Israel-Palestine issue with great big muddy boots. A report destined for this month’s General Assembly says that the Bible does not promise the Jewish people a home in the Holy Land. The Old Testament promise “I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession” was actually “metaphorical”.
Of course, the modern Kirk thinks that everything in the Bible is metaphorical, so these theological contortions should come as no surprise. If the Kirk thinks that Jehovah got it wrong, it should have the courage of its liberal convictions and tell Him so.
As an atheist, however, I don’t need the Kirk to tell me that the Old Testament is no justification for illegal settlements in 2013. But trying to isolate Israel merely strengthens the religious fanatics of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran – who don’t treat their religious texts metaphorically.