Of all the challenges facing Stephen Hawking—explaining the origin of the universe, say, or grappling with the existence of God—none has been more daunting than the simple act of talking. Afflicted with his ever-deteriorating motor neuron condition, he slowly lost the power of speech, communicating at first by raising his eyebrow to choose among letters on cards and later via a computer software that allows him to select from a bank of approximately 3,000 words. Early on, he could utter 15 of these words per minute; by 2005, however, his condition has grown so severe that he could only control his communications device with his cheeks, slowing him down to a word each minute.
One would hope that anyone so tragically robbed of the ability to communicate would rage against the silence, and Hawking certainly has, traveling the world, speaking at conferences, and appearing in commercials. But Israel, it seems, lies outside of the boundaries of the professor’s known universe: Hawking has written a short letter to Israeli president Shimon Peres, announcing his decision to withdraw from a conference, organized by Peres and scheduled to take place in Jerusalem in June, in protest of Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians.
Earlier this week, the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine published a statement, (which after some confusion was reportedly) endorsed by Hawking, praising “his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there.”
It is always dismaying to see intelligent men and women commit themselves to a tactic that relies on stymieing dialogue and curbing the free exchange of ideas. It is particularly difficult to accept these views from Hawking. “The universe,” he wrote in his A Brief History of Time, “doesn’t allow perfection.” Why this realization doesn’t apply to Israel—a nation plagued by imperfections, to say the least—is destined to remain a cosmic mystery.
In the meantime, those of us wishing to take comfort in more meaningful and less equivocal words can turn to Ian McEwan. Accepting a literary prize in Jerusalem in 2011, the writer reflected on the inanity of exclusionary logic. “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed,” he said. “It’s not great if everyone stops talking.”