Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest scientists in the world. His brilliance co-exists with a physically debilitating illness that has made him an inspiration and role-model for many. I hope, however, that few follow his misplaced moral passion. Hawking is boycotting a major academic conference in Israel, one to be addressed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, because of "Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands."
Albert Einstein, to whom Hawking is often compared, would be shocked and devastated. Einstein helped found the state of Israel and used his brilliance to help the United States defeat tyranny and evil. He did not use his intelligence and achievements to attack the beacon of intellectual freedom, democracy and equality in the Middle East.
Given his fertile and creative mind, I think Hawking would feel at home in Israel, where innovation and scientific achievement drives the economy, and where universities are home to extraordinary debate and research.
Alas, despite my disappointment, I am not surprised. Some of the century's greatest minds seem to have a glaring blind spot when it comes to the Judaism and Jewish people. I do not know enough about Hawking to label him an anti-Semite. What I do know is that other great intellectuals undermined their brilliance with their inexplicable hatred. Consider the following:
Martin Heidegger was one of the greatest and most original philosophers of the 20th century. He helped create existentialism and move philosophy out of the shadow of Plato. He was also a virulent Nazi, never expressing regret for his praise of Hitler and membership in the Nazi Party. When Jewish faculty members appealed their sudden terminations from the university Heidegger led, he ignored them. His admirers and biographers have struggled to make sense of this seeming contradiction. How could one of the century's most intelligent men support one of its cruelest, destructive and hateful leaders?
While we cannot give a definitive answer to this question, we can affirm one enduring truth. Morality does not depend on intelligence. It depends on a recognition of human dignity. It depends on humility and empathy. Without a strong moral foundation, the intellectually gifted can rationalize all kinds of hatred.
This truth comes out prominently when we compare Heidegger with his contemporary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like Heidegger, Bonhoeffer was a brilliant philosopher, receiving his doctorate at the University of Berlin. He wrote prodigiously and incorporated many of Heidegger's ideas in his publications.
Yet, in the same year Heidegger joined the Nazi party, Bonhoeffer wrote in defense of Jews and condemned the Nazis' perverse glorification of the "Aryan" race. Bonhoeffer later died in a concentration camp.
A contemporary example of the intellectual blind spot toward Jews and the Jewish people (and, if news reports are to be believed, one of the people who convinced Hawking not to visit Israel) is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky's father was a Hebrew teacher and a Zionist. In fact, the word noam means "pleasant" or "beautiful" in Hebrew. Chomsky's ideas revolutionized the study of linguistics and logic. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, he was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar from 1980 to 1992, and was the eighth-most cited source overall.
Yet, this same scholar said in a debate, "I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the holocaust. Nor would there be anti-Semitic implications, per se, in the claim that the holocaust (whether one believes it took place or not) is being exploited, viciously so, by apologists for Israeli repression and violence." In other words, denying the Holocaust is not an act of anti-Semitism. In fact, talking about it too much constitutes exploitation and a creates a cover for repression and violence. Would Chomsky say the same thing about slavery and racism?
Observers of Chomsky have tried for years to understand why a child of jewish refugees would lend his support to such anti-Semitic nonsense. His defense of lies and unending criticism of Israel's right to exist makes no sense within his larger intellectual goals of seeking truth and fair debate. We are left with another example of extraordinary intelligence yielding a despicable understanding of Jews and Judaism.
Stephen Hawking's gesture pales in comparison to the words and deeds of Heidegger and Chomsky. Yet, it reminds us that the smartest people do not always have the right answers.