Stephen Hawking and the Made in Israel Boycott

Matt Dunham/AP

Stephen Hawking has joined a motley crew of celebrities who have distanced themselves from the state of Israel. The list of personalities to do so includes Annie Lennox, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bran Van 3000 (remember them?).

Hawking has announced that he will not attend the Israeli Presidential Conference next month, an academic event set to explore “the central issues that will influence the face of our future.” It’s also a celebration of Israeli President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday.

“I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics,” Hawking wrote to organizers. “They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view I must withdraw from the conference.”

Hawking’s decision has inspired all kinds of backlash: either he is a hypocrite for singling out Israel’s alleged crimes and ignoring the rest of the human-rights averse Middle East, or he is, predictably, an anti-Semite.

But Hawking’s announcement has also inspired the stop-using-our-stuff mantra. Here’s Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of Israeli law centre, Shurat HaDin:

“His [Hawking’s] whole computer-based communications system runs on a chip designed by Israel’s Intel team. I suggest if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet.”

At my high school’s multicultural assembly, each culture showcased its talent through song and dance. Mine presented an extremely long PowerPoint starring “Things Invented in Israel” — the subtext being, “we can’t dance but we invented Rummikub.” To translate what  Darshan-Leitner was really saying to Hawking, “You’d be lost without us.”

It’s a childish argument that exposes the ugliness and stupidity of academic and cultural boycotts. Darshan-Leitner’s comments were crude, but she’s right. If Hawking is going to boycott the conference—if he is going to boycott good ideas because of the soil on which they’re formed—then it is hypocritical of him to use Israeli technology. As author Ian McEwan said about his refusal to refuse an Israeli award:  “If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed … it’s not great if everyone stops talking.”

There’s no use boycotting the good to spite the bad. You can’t defeat the dark by shutting out the light.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.