When hypocrisy met vanity
Coincidence is a funny thing. Take last Wednesday. I had reserved that morning to prepare a lecture on the intellectual origins of Nazism. I intended asking why so many apparently sane academics saw fit to endorse Nazism, and indeed promote it. I proposed examining several German men of science and letters, including the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the physicists and Nobel Laureates Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark.
It was Stark who, in 1907, asked the comparatively obscure Albert Einstein to write an essay on the principle of relativity. The essay launched Einstein on to the world stage. But, much later, as proponents of "German Physics," Stark and Lenard denounced Einstein and became fanatical flag-carriers for the Nazi state.
Well, there I was, busily researching these individuals, when I received a call asking me to comment on the startling news that Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned theoretical physicist, had reportedly acceded to requests from Palestinian-Arab academics and rejected an invitation from Israeli President Shimon Peres to attend the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem.
After some confusion, stemming from a highly misleading statement from Cambridge University suggesting that Hawking's decision had been prompted merely by the state of his health, it became clear that the underlying motive was indeed political.
Hawking had graced Iran — and China — with his presence
The previous Friday, Hawking had told the conference organisers: "I accepted… with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank. However, I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster."
On hearing this, I reminded the reporter of the words of my late father: "You can't teach common sense at a university."
I observed that the attributes of scholarly brilliance and political idiocy were not, alas, mutually exclusive and recalled that several renowned physicists had espoused Nazism.
I also pointed out that the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter had openly supported the Serbian murderer Slobodan Miloševic. And that Hawking himself, while clearly determined to boycott Israel, had in 2007 seen fit to grace Iran with his presence - despite Iran's comprehensive abuse of basic human rights - and had also visited China, a brutal totalitarian state in which the suppression and torture of political dissidents are (especially in Tibet) everyday occurrences.
I observed that in boycotting the event Hawking was denying himself the platform he had apparently sought - to denounce Israeli policy (which of course he is entitled to do).
But I then had some less than generous words for those who had extended the invitation to him in the first place.
The Presidential Conference is not an academic event. Over three days, a gathering of some 5,000 celebrities - including Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Prince Albert of Monaco and Barbra Streisand - will meet in solemn conclave to debate "Facing Tomorrow" - and will "engage the central issues that will influence the face of our future: geopolitics, economics, society, environment, culture, new media, and more".
The idea that any concrete good can come from such an assembly is fatuous nonsense. The first such conference took place in 2008. The conferences stem from an initiative of Peres and - to be blunt -their purpose is simply to enhance the international image of Peres. They have no other rationale.
Of course, if Hawking were not such a hypocrite he would - in the interests of the boycott he clearly supports - forego all the technology, originating in Israel, that enables him to cope and function in spite of the motor neurone disease from which he has suffered for the past half-century.
But if Shimon Peres were not so conceited he would never have summoned the "Presidential Conference" in the first place.