Why Stephen Hawking made a mistake backing Israel boycott

(By Charles W Luzier - REUTERS) Stephen Hawking                      (By Charles W Luzier – REUTERS)

Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, just backed out of a major international conference scheduled in Israel this June on the advice of Palestinian academics who have been pushing an academic boycott against Israel for years.

The Israeli Presidential Conference, hosted by President Shimon Peres, is intended to look at the central issues facing Israel and the world. Among those who have accepted invitations to attend, according to The New York Times, are former president Bill Clinton, who is receiving an award from Peres, and Barbara Streisand, who is singing in honor of Peres’s 90th birthday.

The University of Cambridge, Hawking’s academic home for decades, initially said he was pulling out for health reasons — Hawking is almost completely paralyzed from Lou Gehrig’s disease — but later said it was a decision Hawking made “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott,” the Associated Press reported.

Critics of Hawking’s decision are noting that he was all too happy to visit China in 2007 without bringing up the vicious Chinese treatment of Tibetans, or Iran in 2007, but they needn’t go there.

They can rest with this: The whole notion of academic boycotts is anti-academic. Academics is supposed to be about the pursuit of knowledge and truth. The American Association of University Professors Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued a statement on this in 2005:

ACADEMIC BOYCOTT

Delegates to a recent meeting of the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) approved resolutions that damage academic freedom. The resolutions call on all members of AUT to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration, or joint projects” with two universities in Israel, Haifa University and Bar Ilan University. Excluded from the ban are “conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies,” an exclusion which, because it requires compliance with a political or ideological test in order for an academic relationship to continue, deepens the injury to academic freedom rather than mitigates it.

 

These resolutions have been met with strong condemnation and calls for repeal within the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The American Association of University Professors joins in condemning these resolutions and in calling for their repeal. Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has been committed to preserving and advancing the free exchange of ideas among academics irrespective of governmental policies and however unpalatable those policies may be viewed. We reject proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues, and we reaffirm the paramount importance of the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas. The AAUP urges the AUT to support the right of all in the academic community to communicate freely with other academics on matters of professional interest.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · May 9, 2013