Stephen Hawking is not only a prominent scientist and researcher. He is also an intellectual involved in the public discourse in the United Kingdom. He called the war in Iraq, and the United Kingdom’s participation in it, “a war crime,” and as one who identifies with the British Labour Party’s left wing, he expressed his support, in principle, for his country’s unilateral nuclear disarmament.
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These are not very unusual positions. Within the British academic community are those who find them acceptable. But the use of the phrase “war crime” to describe Britain’s actions in this context is without a doubt extreme, considering the crimes of Saddam Hussein, who used chemical weapons against the Kurdish citizens of his own country and in the war against Iran. Of course, one may disagree with Hawking’s opinions on the issue, as quite a few of his colleagues do, but they are still legitimate opinions and he has a right to express them. Any dictator, from Hitler to Stalin to Assad, will always find advocates among decent people.
But in light of these opinions, Hawking’s decision to join the academic boycott of Israel is still surprising. What measures did he take after deciding that Britain’s participation in the war against Saddam Hussein was a “war crime”? Did he refuse to pay taxes to his government? Did he tell Israeli researchers and scientists to refuse invitations from British academic and official institutions then? Does he do so now?
The war in Iraq was led by the United States, which continues to operate a completely illegal detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. I never heard Hawking announce that he was boycotting the U.S. and its academic and public institutions because of war crimes that he felt the U.S. had committed in Iraq.
Not only that, but this too: In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Hawking the Presidential Medal of Freedom, that country’s highest civilian honor. At the time, Hawking expressed enthusiastic support for Obama’s positions; we may assume that the president’s decision to award the Medal of Freedom to Hawking was an act of gratitude for that support.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the way of the world, and Hawking is certainly one of the greatest scientists living among us. But didn’t it bother him to receive the medal — and the Medal of Freedom, no less — from the president of the U.S. who, despite his statements, continues waging the complicated war in Afghanistan even more strongly than before, and who, despite his statements, is the leader of a superpower that continues to operate the detention center that is a kind of “black hole” (a concept that Hawking certainly understands)? Hawking finds the president of the State of Israel unacceptable because of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, but he finds the president of the U.S. is perfectly all right and the atrocity known as the detention center at Guantanamo Bay doesn’t bother him?
This double standard toward Israel on Hawking’s part leads to sad reflections about his judgment and his ethical analyses. A person who never called for a boycott of Britain or the U.S. for starting a war that, in his opinion, is a “war crime,” but boycotts an Israeli conference that Palestinians will also be attending suffers from severe moral blindness. Not to apply the same standards to Britain and the U.S. that he applies to Israel is a decision that, at best, shows insensitivity to the rules of morality, which must be universal (see Kant and the categorical imperative). It is certainly stained with hypocrisy and has a whiff of racism as well.