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How Stephen Hawking Is Wrong

Let us count the ways

Liel Leibovitz
May 14, 2013

Now that the Stephen Hawking controversy has died down and the usual suspects have traded their predictable barbs, it would serve us well to examine, coolly and without prejudice, the contours of the affair. If for no other reason, we’re likely to see similar cases pop up in the near future, and rather than being swept anew each time by the powerful gales of resentment and rage, we would do well to try and define the contours of useful conversation. Let us steer clear of the blowhards on either side, whom we’ve lost long ago. Let us also avoid nudging the conversation towards absolute terms like legitimacy, and assume, bluntly, that any human action that is not illegal is a legitimate and permissible one. What we aim for is something much more practical and far less illustrious, namely some common ground for us, the majority of people who see the nuance in this situation and who strive to settle reason, justice, and common-sense. Towards that end, I propose, the following four principles apply:

The Priority Principle: As soon as news broke of the esteemed physicist’s snubbing of the Jerusalem conference, defenders of the Jewish State argued that Hawking’s response was nonsensical given the rush of brutalities surging everywhere from Damascus to the Democratic Republic of Congo. To the extent that it implies that one ought to focus on one conflict at a time, the argument is false; as Noam Sheizaf rightly pointed out in +972, “the genocide in Cambodia was taking place at the same time as the boycott effort against South Africa,” and any claim that we ought not to focus on one when there’s another going on may very well lead to inaction. This, however, is where the priority principle comes into play: to the extent that one chooses to be an engaged and responsible global citizen, one is expected to set priorities and act on them. Such is the mark of maturity: while we are all surrounded by a constellation of stimulations, we must, if we wish to lead a morally balanced life, concentrate our attention on those challenges that are most pressing, which, as all but the most hardened cynics would agree, means that priority ought to be given to any crisis involving the loss of human life. There is little doubt that, for many, living in the occupied West Bank is cruel and tragic. But 70,000 human beings have been slaughtered in the last two years just a few kilometers to the north in Assad’s inferno. Anyone, then, is free to protest Israel’s policies, but as long as they remain silent on other, and far more pressing, catastrophes, reasonable observers will be right to question whether singling out Israel mightn’t be guided by ulterior, and dishonorable, motives.

The Categorical Imperative Principle: Arguably the foundation of much of our moral and legal system, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative states that one must only act if one’s action may apply as a universal law. Hawking, then, is welcome to boycott these regimes that are engaged in what he believes are severe violations of human rights. But, as the Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri insightfully argued, if Hawking was following his own logic, not to mention Kant’s, he would have to place similar constraints on his relations with official parties in Britain and the United States, having famously called the military campaign in Iraq a “war crime.” If this is what Hawking believes, and there’s no reason to doubt him, then President Obama—patron of predator drones, which have killed, by some estimates, anywhere between 3,500 and 4,700 people, of whom at least four were Americans shot without trial—must be equally as morally tainted as President Shimon Peres, whose invitation Hawking refused. This, of course, wasn’t the case: Hawking was pleased to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. Avineri is absolutely correct in claiming that in turning down one invitation and embracing another, Hawking violated not only the categorical imperative but also good, old-fashioned common sense.

The Principle of Consequence: While on the subject of common sense, advocates of any political cause mustn’t lose sight of a simple realization, namely that actions have consequences, and that if one is engaged in a pursuit to improve conditions here on earth—any other sort of political undertaking is messianic, and is almost certain to inflict wounds rather than heal them—one should be concerned with outcomes just as much as with abstractions. The theory among supporters of BDS holds that massive isolation of Israeli society would eventually lead to the Jewish State’s downfall, just as it had ended the segregationist regime in South Africa. Without discussing the merits of comparing the occupation to apartheid, it is not too difficult to admit that, under the existing geopolitical conditions, attempts to isolate Israel internationally are very likely to have an adverse effect. With strong American support in the foreseeable future, Israel is never likely to suffer a blow crucial enough to undermine its well-being; boycotts, then, serve as little but fodder for the worst elements in the Israeli political landscape, already grim. The narrative that posits Israel as a small and persecuted nation having no choice but to sacrifice all hope on the altar of vigilance is, arguably, a greater threat to that nation than all of Tehran’s missiles. It’s a line of thinking that leads to nothing but despair, and Hawking, in his refusal, feeds right into it. He might’ve used his clout to travel to Jerusalem and offer some harsh and inconvenient truths from his podium. He might’ve taken the opportunity to urge his pal Obama into playing a more decisive role in pressing for the rekindling of negotiations. He might’ve even met and spoken with young Israelis, promising them—as the American president had during his recent visit to Jerusalem—that a better tomorrow is possible if only they held their leaders accountable. Instead, Hawking wasted all his clout on a purely symbolic, utterly useless act. It’s more than just a shame.

The Proust Principle: Too often understood, often by people who had never read him, to be a chronicler of high society for whom the aesthetic always trumped the political, Proust offers us as many insights into politics as he does into any other realm of the human experience. One in particular resonates: political convictions, he argued, are like kaleidoscopic visions, constantly shifting and intricately linked to a host of other emotional, social, even artistic criteria. Rather than seek absolutes and fortify barriers, he advocates keeping in mind that the next shift in focus is just around the corner, and that we, if we’re alive at all, are constantly changing creatures. This profound insight is not without its prescriptions: following the master’s teachings, a Proustian political activist would therefore seek to establish coalitions not necessarily with those who hold similar opinions—these opinions, history and Proust’s great novel both show us, are apt to change—but with those towards whom one feels, to borrow the phrase Christopher Hitchens and Bill Buckley used to describe their (at times unlikely) friendship, a “consanguinity of spirit.” It is easy to see all of Israeli society as playing a part in the occupation, and coarse arguments insist that as the army plays a major part in the lives of individuals and institutions in Israel the nation entire is morally tainted. Proust, as conflicted about the implications of Jewish identity as anyone, would brush off such dogma, insisting that there are conflicted, attentive minds inside every political thicket eager to listen and interact, and that it’s the task of the artist, not to mention the activist, to make them heard. This is what’s lost when we stop talking, a loss that makes life poorer.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.