I didn’t play Sun City, not that anybody asked me.

I didn’t drink Paarl wine.  I didn’t eat Cape apples.  I avoided South African products because Apartheid was wrong and I didn’t want my nice clean money in their filthy pockets.  In the same context, I supported the Helsinki Watch groups and wore a bracelet for a prisoner of conscience (Ida Nudel, as it happens) behind the Iron Curtain.

Nona Hendryx didn't play Sun City.  (Photo credit: Flickr, Stephen Malagodi CC-BY)

Nona Hendryx didn’t play Sun City. (Photo credit: Flickr, Stephen Malagodi CC-BY)

When my dad and his Western medical colleagues voted to stay away from a conference in the USSR his comment was ‘let Shcharansky go, and then I’ll come to your conference’.  Back in the day, human rights weren’t only for the Mandelas, they were for everyone.

The boycott of South Africa was unambiguous.  Our demand for South Africa was clear:  one person, one vote in a South Africa with equal rights for all regardless of skin colour.  We knew what Apartheid was, and we knew that real democracy would make it go away.

The boycott of South Africa in the 1980s was not an isolated thing.  It was part of an increasing concern about human rights in the waning years of the Cold War.  Once a dictator could do what he liked as long as he supported Uncle Sam, but things had changed.  We didn’t eat Pinochet’s grapes when we boycotted South African apples.

Photo of Tienamen Square

Tienamen Square. Stephen Hawking visited in 2006 but had nothing to say about Tibet or human rights. (Photo credit: Flickr, star5112 CC BY-SA)

If Professor Stephen Hawking made a clear statement in support of Palestinians’ human rights I would respect him.  If he made a clear statement in support of Palestinian statehood and criticised the Israeli government for doing to little to achieve it, I would respect him.  If he made a clear statement in favour of a single bicultural Palestinian state with a permanent Arab majority but with minority rights safeguarded by a strong constitution I would wonder what he was smoking but I would still respect him.

Stephen Hawking at a conference in Jerusalem in 2006

Tear down that Apartheid Wall and expose Israelis to Hamas suicide bombs again! Or something. (photo credit: Orel Cohen/Flash90)

If Hawking had turned up in Jerusalem, looked that old reptile Shimon Peres in the eye, and made a strong, clear statement about the horrible conditions in the Gaza Strip or the way that the souk in Hebron has been sapped of all its vitality, I’d be impressed.  It would be even cooler than his cameos on Star Trek and The Big Bang Theory.  Instead I’m left with the vague feeling that he’s made himself into Noam Chomsky’s hand puppet.

Boycotting Israel, Israeli conferences or Israeli products, or refusing to teach Israeli postgraduate students, is not a clear statement.  Does Hawking want elections in the Palestinian Authority? Does he want Israel to dismantle the security barrier separating its population from the Palestinian Authority? Does he want Israel to increase the flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip? All of the above? Does he want a single unitary bicultural state with a permanent Arab majority but with minority rights safeguarded by a strong constitution?

The letter to Hawking from other British academics conflated the rights of Israel’s Arab minority with the security-based blockade of Gaza and the construction and expansion of settlements in the West Bank.  Does Hawking consider these to be of equal or comparable importance? Does settlement expansion mean the same to him as equal opportunity for Israeli Arabs when applying for positions on the Israeli Supreme Court? Does either compare to the awful predicament of people in Gaza who need to go through the indignities of strip searches because their neighbours have in the past worn explosive waistcoats?

Staying home from a conference doesn’t tell us much, and it doesn’t say much for the ethical basis of his departure from academic courtesy and freedom as we know it.

‘I ain’t gonna play Sun City’ meant something specific.  ‘I ain’t gonna go to a photo op with Shimon Peres,’ not so much.

Boycotting Israel without correspondingly strong statements about human rights elsewhere empties Hawking’s vague gesture of meaning.  Hawking has been happy to visit China, about whose human rights record among Uighurs and Tibetans he has not had much to say, never mind the human rights of the general Han population.  Hawking has made no statements about human rights violations in Belarus.  Hawking has made no statements about human rights violations in North Korea.  Nor Equatorial Guinea.  Nor Saudi Arabia.  Nor Guantánamo bloody bay.

Statue of Kostis Palamas in Athens gagged as a protest against human rights violations in Belarus

A clear statement about freedom of speech in Belarus: A statue of Kostis Palamas in Athens gagged. (Photo credit: Flickr, Konstantinos Koukopoulos CC-BY)

There is only one state worth commenting on, says Hawking, and it’s Israel.

I don’t care that Hawking has an Israeli chip in his voicebox.  Boycotting an Israeli conference while using Israeli tech is a complex ethical question but one that could be addressed.

I care that Hawking has made a vague anti-Israel statement which implicitly says that all the rest of the world’s human rights abuses pale to nothing compared with Israel’s.  Hawking has said that he’ll go to China, he’ll go to Iran; but he won’t stand beside that monster Shimon Peres.

I care that some Palestinian academics have applauded Hawking’s decision.  The depth of despair that makes the sun shine when a certain British guy doesn’t turn up is a deep despair indeed.  A better organisation than Bricup would work to make positive things happen for Palestinian academia.  Instead they talked Stevie Wonder out of performing.  In Los Angeles.

Singling out Israel’s human rights abuses shows that a brilliant physicist and cosmologist whose political and social nous is so limited ought to stick to what he knows.  It also shows that Peres shouldn’t have invited him in the first place.