Stephen Hawking: ALS wasn’t his only affliction

Stephen Hawking

On Tuesday, we looked briefly at the long and extraordinary career of the British physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who may have done more than any other individual since Einstein to expand human understanding of the nature of the universe – and to try to spread that understanding, through books, television programs, and lectures, to the ordinary citizen.

And he did all this, as we noted, while bravely enduring the daily destruction caused by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the cruel wasting disease that he contracted as a very young man and, against all odds, managed to live with for half a century.

Jacob Bekenstein

But ALS was not Hawking’s only affliction. As we pointed out on Tuesday, Hawking, who usually exhibited a high degree of respect for his fellowman, had one very large blind spot when it came to his fellowman. It had to do with Israel, and with Jews. He was, alas, hostile to Israel, and, many would argue, to the Jewish people generally. 

It was not a lifelong affliction. In early and mid career, Hawking visited Israel several times. On one occasion he was a guest of honor at a reception held by the Israel Academy of Sciences and the Humanities; on another, he traveled to the Jewish state to accept the Wolf Prize in Physics, which is awarded by an Israeli foundation. Most notably, he studied black-hole entropy and developed the theory of Bekenstein-Hawking radiation in collaboration with Jacob Bekenstein, a theoretical physicist at Hebrew University.

Noam Chomsky

More recently, however, Hawking fell under the baleful influence of Noam Chomsky, the world-class linguist turned massively influential far-left political commentator who is a notorious Israel-hater and fan of Palestine. According to Judy Siegel-Itzkovich, it was Chomsky who persuaded Hawking to turn down an invitation to a May 2013 conference in Jerusalem hosted by the then Israeli president, Shimon Peres. In a Guardian article that appeared shortly thereafter, however, Hilary and Steven Rose maintained that Hawking boycotted the conference at the behest of Palestinian academics.

With Pope Benedict XVI

This claim is supported by the letter Hawking wrote to the conference organizers, in which he warned that the “policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster,” said that he had accepted their invitation so that he could “express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement” and “lecture on the West Bank,” and stated that he was withdrawing in accordance with the advice of “Palestinian academics,” who “are unanimous that I should respect the boycott.” This fracas did not mark the end of Hawking’s engagement with the Palestinians: last year, according to Al Jazeera, “he asked his millions of Facebook followers to contribute financially to the Palestinian Advanced Physics School – a physics lecture series for masters students in the occupied West Bank.”

Hawking at Intel with Lama Nachman, an Intel engineer

For all his scientific brilliance, Hawking’s palpable contempt for the only democracy in the Middle East cannot be described as anything other than sheer foolishness. Add to this foolishness a considerable dose of hypocrisy: as Jean Patrick Grumberg wrote after his death, Hawking professed to be observing the boycott of Israel promoted by the so-called BDS movement; in fact, however, the computer system that allowed him to communicate after the loss of his voice was a product of Israeli technology – specifically, of the Israeli branch of Intel. Hawking had been using the system since 1997, and by using it he was clearly violating the boycott. The moral inconsistency here, in short, is stark. To quote Grumberg’s summing-up: “It was through an Israeli communication system that Professor Hawking was able to announce a boycott of Israeli science and Jewish scientists.”

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