Harvard economist and former university president Larry Summers became the latest and most prominent voice in academia to criticize British physicist Stephen Hawking for pulling out of this week’s Israeli Presidential Conference for political reasons.
“I have a very different perspective than he does on the appropriateness of avoiding academic interchange as a tool of political pressure,” Summers said in an interview with Haaretz at the Jerusalem convention center on Wednesday. “I believe that is the wrong thing to do, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, because I believe that the answer to anything you find offensive is discussion and debate, not ostracism.”
Hawking, whom Summers called a “brilliant theoretical physicist,” initially accepted an invitation to speak at the conference but backed out in May on the advice of Palestinian academics.
As president of Harvard from 2001 to 2006, Summers, who is Jewish, took an uncompromising stand against academic boycotts and calls for the university to divest from Israel, actions which he deemed anti-Semitic. In the intervening years, he said, he has not changed his mind on the matter.
“There is a great deal in Israeli foreign policy that should be very vigorously challenged and debated, but the singling out of only the Jewish state for academic boycott seems to me to be deeply problematic,” he said. “Even on the harshest views of Israeli foreign policy, it seems almost impossible to credit the judgment that Israel uniquely deserves demonization with everything else—stonings, beheadings, torture, state support for terrorism—that goes on in parts of the Middle East.”
Summers, who counts President Shimon Peres as a longtime friend dating to his time as U.S. Treasury Secretary, said the Presidential Conference represents an opportunity for dialogue and “greater reflection on different perspectives.”
“One of the really important things that Shimon Peres stands for is the importance of ideas, and events like this tend to bring out the bigger and more generous side of all of our natures,” he said.
In his keynote speech during a plenary session on the global economy on Wednesday evening, Summers expressed guarded optimism about the pace of recovery in the United States.
“I have good news,” Summers said. “There are no certainties, there are enormous risks, there are substantial problems, but I think it is a reasonable judgment that the American economy is coming back, that the recovery is going to accelerate and that America is going to continue to have the capacity for economic strength and global leadership that it’s had for many years.”
Summers, who served as the director of U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, predicted that the U.S. economy would grow by three percent by the end of the year. In addition, he pointed to several “structural advantages” that bode well for sustained economic growth, including a large labor force, the ability to accept and benefit from immigration and an entrepreneurial spirit.
“We will benefit from a capacity for technology and entrepreneurial innovation that I believe, with the possible exception of Israel, is unmatched around the world,” he said. “We remain, perhaps along with Israel, the only country in the world where you can raise your first 100 million dollars before you buy your first suit.”
On Tuesday, Summers spoke at a retirement party for Stanley Fischer, his former teacher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the outgoing governor of the Bank of Israel. “I admire enormously the job that Stanley Fischer has done,” Summers told Haaretz. “I think that while the Israeli economy, like all economies, has important challenges, there’s a great deal that is positive that has taken place in recent years.”
Asked for reaction to news reports that he and Fischer are the leading candidates to replace Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve at the end of Bernanke’s current term, Summers said: “I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.”
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