From their responses to his death, the defining moment of Stephen Hawking’s life to many in the pro-Israel camp may well have been his 2013 withdrawal, at the request of Palestinian academics and in solidarity with the BDS movement, from a Jerusalem conference celebrating then-Israeli President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday. Hawking had lectured in Israel as recently as 2006, but sharply criticized Israeli military actions in Gaza in 2009.
Much of the condemnation Hawking received in response to his withdrawal called him a hypocrite, especially noting that the very communication system that produced his iconic “voice” and through which he announced his boycott was Israeli-developed technology. The argument tracks with a popular genre of response to BDS, but, especially in Hawking’s case, is ineffective and flows from a troubling assumption.
Whatever one thinks of Hawking’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no reason to assume he didn’t come to it in good faith. That being the case, it is difficult to understand why his use of a technology that enabled him to live his life productively should have much bearing on that position at all. In fact, the reverse is true. If Hawking actually felt that a boycott of Israel was morally or politically justified but couldn’t say so because of where his voice chip was first developed, his silence on the issue would, indeed, have been disingenuous. If he had allowed himself to be convinced of a pro-Israel position solely because of the benefit he received from an Israeli product, then his support, bought and paid for, would not have been worth all that much anyway.
This all has significance beyond Hawking because many anti-BDS initiatives make a point of listing the various technologies, healthcare breakthroughs, and consumer products that originate in Israel. At its core, though, this line of reasoning is essentially “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” or, perhaps even more cynically, “might makes right.” Either way, its flaw is that it does not argue that Israel is defensible, only unavoidable. By doing so, it concedes moral high ground that any pro-Israel advocate should not willingly concede.
In 1999, Hawking told Al Jazeera, “The situation is like that of South Africa before 1990.” Simply put, the pro-Israel response cannot be just that Israel has more and better advanced technology to export than South Africa did.
Perhaps, in the end, Hawking was somewhat hypocritical for using the Israeli technology he was reliant upon even as he supported BDS. Maybe the tension between his position and practice even caused him angst.
However, demanding that he take his position to its logical conclusion was essentially demanding that he sacrifice his productive life for its sake. It could well be that, however strong Hawking’s conviction, he didn’t feel the need for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be the hill he would, almost literally, die on. After all, there is not much respect out there for the moral conviction and ideological purity of Cape Town’s leaders for rejecting Israeli help with water desalination as their citizens currently face a catastrophic water shortage that could have been averted.
In the end, Hawking’s relationship with the state of Israel was fraught, messy, and complicated — and, perhaps because of all that, it was genuine. Personally, I disagree with the stance he chose — but I far prefer to debate the merits of my arguments, not the relative integrity of those who oppose them.