Hawking and Hypocrisy: Here We Go Again

Moments of hypocrisy may tell us something about a person, but they say nothing about the issue at hand: If you are contemptuous of Hawking’s decision to boycott, what alternative to ending the occupation are you proposing?

“Punk” is one of those epithets you don’t hear much anymore. But turning on my Facebook feed this morning, there it was, bizarrely embedded in a meme attached to a photo of Stephen Hawking: “If you’re going to boycott Israel, please remove the Intel chip that allows you to speak, punk!”

“Too clever by half,” was what my fellow Haaretz blogger Chemi Shalev termed these calls of hypocrisy. Another fellow Haaretz blogger, Carlos Strenger, has called out Hawking for what he sees as a double standard and to which Ami Kaufman, over at +972, has issued a witty rejoinder.

I admit that I am no stranger to the type of hypocrisy these memes are trying to spotlight.

A few days into my freshman year at university across the country, I found myself exploring downtown Montreal in search of the perfect poster for my dorm room. In the days before eBay and Amazon and the George Lucas prequels and now the franchise sale to Disney, discovering a vintage-style Star Wars poster in a dusty head shop on St. Catherine Street was a prized moment. But I soon stopped short. There at the back of the store hung a large, swastika flag. Alone in the shop, I approached the clerk and expressed my outrage. And then, weighing my next steps, I paid for my poster and left.

I still recall my reasoning. Why must I add insult (foregoing my treasured find) to injury (being angered by the sight of the vile flag)? Still, I realized even then that my reasoning was more opportunistic than principled.

Moments of hypocrisy may tell us something about a person, but they say nothing about the issue at hand. Leaving aside the obvious fact that the right to communicate far surpasses the right to bedroom decor, I gave in to my short-term desires, and the trafficking in racism and anti-Semitism lives on. Stephen Hawking boycotts the conference while availing himself of Israeli technology, and the occupation continues apace.

So once the indignant Hawking-hypocrisy memes have made their rounds, here are four follow-on points to consider.

1. When encountering injustice, what is a person’s duty? In canceling his appearance at the President’s Conference, Hawking made a calculated and principled decision. As Noam Sheizaf wrote over at +972, “The occupation – which will celebrate 46 years next month – is obviously an Israeli project, to which all elements of society contribute and from which almost all benefit.” For Hawking, the principle of calling foul against this increasingly entrenched status quo won out over whatever desire he may have felt to be a gracious guest, and whatever desire he may have harbored to be feted by an appreciative audience. What he didn’t do was lob missiles or throw stones.

2. I have gone on record as stating my absolute rejection of academic boycotts. But I’m not sure that the state-sponsored, photo-op-filled gathering that is the President’s Conference fits this category. Does it have the makings of the kind of unfettered, free exchange of ideas that are the hallmarks of the academic enterprise?

3. As a Diaspora Jew, I oppose a blanket boycott of Israel. I can no sooner contemplate boycotting Israel as I can my own country. But I have supported calls for boycotting West Bank products. As Andrew Silow-Carroll blogged in response to the Hawking boycott, and as I have argued, the broad-based boycott, divestment and sanctions movement points to a one-state solution where Israel no longer exists. Only a selective boycott -- the kind advocated by Peace Now, by many academics and artists in Israel, and by American Jewish commentators like Peter Beinart -- points to a two-state solution where Israel can live alongside a nascent state of Palestine. It’s not clear which outcome Hawking is intending to endorse by his actions. But at least it gets our voices and keyboards pointing away from the status quo closer and towards a new, reimagined reality.

4. If you are contemptuous of Hawking’s decision to boycott, what alternative to ending the occupation are you proposing? Or do you agree that living under the military occupation of a foreign government, as West Bank Palestinians do, is an acceptable, just, ethical, moral, tenable, sustainable (name your term) way to live? Speaking of punk, maybe we all need a bit more of it, a bit more railing against the status quo which seems to have no end in sight. Maybe we all need a bit more Sex Pistols -- those darlings of punk rock, who lamented, “Here we go again.”