With Rabbi Ariel Abel

Initially Professor Stephen Hawking planned to speak at a high-profile Israeli conference, but then he was lobbied by Pro-Torah For TodayPalestinian campaigners in support of an academic boycott of the country. He then pulled out following advice from Palestinian academics. What does the Torah say about being influenced away from participating in positive events?

“Our brothers melted our hearts, saying, they are a people as tall as giants…!”

This call, issued by 10 of the 12 spies sent ahead to the land of Canaan by Moses to fact-find, dissuaded many from proceeding with the journey to the Promised Land. The result was 40 years in the desert, and almost the entire generation never saw beyond the sands of Sinai. This is a suitable parallel for the dilemma to which Stephen Hawking has submitted.

On one hand there is the opportunity of freedom of inquiry, enlightenment, advancing knowledge and inspiring thousands of students who would flock to hear him. The other choice is to give in to people who demonise others.

To pro-Palestine boycotters, Israelis do not deserve the attention or co-operation of their colleagues. The result will not be pretty. If academia and science splits over this, there will only be losers.

We will all feel frustrated and condemned to wander the deserts of isolation and relative ignorance for as long as the boycotting bullies are tolerated.

Even if the bullies are brothers, it is not in the interest of any possibility of peace and reconciliation to kill off what cooperation and communication exists, and especially not by targeting individual citizens of a particular country.

This particular point is significant. Rabshakeh, the Babylonian commander called out to the Jerusalemites on the wall, defending the holy city under siege. It would have been so easy to open the gates and let the Babylonians, the regional superpower, have their way. But they did not.

Isaiah the prophet reassured the king, Hezekiah, that the impressive camp of marauders would not persist.

The result was that by morning, they were mysteriously all dead.

A beautiful poem by Lord Byron recounts the demise of that enemy. It is a spectacular reminder of how, when the Torah says “You shall not fear them”, this is an encouragement to intelligent, but impressionable members of society not to be in any way frightened by the bullies.