On Stephen Hawking and Israel, an Open Letter
Prof. Malcolm Levitt
Dept. of Chemistry
11th May 2013
Dear Professor Levitt,
I am not a chemist nor, indeed, a scientist of any kind. My academic background exists in a very different field, but one, I hope, that is of articular relevance to the subject of this e-mail. I am a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies and a former editor of The Middle East Quarterly, an international journal. My PhD was in an adjunct area of Persian Studies. I have a particular interest in the Middle East (where I have lived, first in Iran, later in Morocco) and my several visits to Israel have created in me a particular interest in matters relating to that country, both religious and political.
I was alerted today to a statement you made recently relating to the decision by Professor Stephen Hawking to boycott a conference due to be held in Israel, when you said ‘Israel has a totally explicit policy of making life impossible for the non-Jewish population and I find it totally unacceptable.’ Assuming I have quoted you correctly, I feel impelled to ask you where on earth you obtained such a manifestly nonsensical view. Like anyone, I feel free to criticize Israel when its government policies stray from the straight and narrow. Like any country, Israel makes mistakes. But when critics level accusations that are simply divorced from reality – that Israel practises apartheid, for example, or that it is ‘a Nazi state’ – then I cannot let such remarks pass by.
Israel is the one country in the Middle East (and often far beyond) of which it plainly and categorically cannot be said that it ‘has a totally explicit policy of making life impossible’ for adherents of any but the dominant faith. In Iran, for example, members of the indigenous Baha’i religion (about which I have written extensively) are hanged, imprisoned, denied employment in all professions, refused entry to the universities, and are threatened with genocide. Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews there are treated harshly. For many, life is impossible. Jews have been driven out of all the Arabs countries. In most Arab countries (notably Egypt), Christians are persecuted, churches are destroyed, and whole communities have been leaving over the past ten years and more. Those are all countries you would do better to condemn.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East whose Christian population has risen steadily since 1948. And Israel’s treatment of the Baha’is is exemplary: they have their international centre in Haifa, where they have built gardens, terraces, and white marble buildings facing the Mediterranean, half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that puts the Iranian regime to shame. The other half of the UNESCO site is situated outside Acre and contains the holiest of the Baha’I shrines. In Iran, every single one of the Baha’i holy places has been bulldozed, never to be rebuilt. Every Baha’i cemetery has met the same fate.
In Israel, then 1967 Protection of Holy Places Law guarantees the safety of all Jewish and non-Jewish sacred sites:
1. The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.
1. Whosoever desecrates or otherwise violates a Holy Place shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of seven years.
2. Whosoever does anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of five years.
1. This Law shall add to, and not derogate from, any other law.
2. The Minister of Religious Affairs is charged with the implementation of this Law, and he may, after consultation with, or upon the proposal of, representatives of the religions concerned and with the consent of the Minister of Justice make regulations as to any matter relating to such implementation.
3. This Law shall come into force on the date of its adoption by the Knesset.
This Law is rigorously applied to Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i and other holy places. There is nothing remotely like it in any Islamic country. In Saudi Arabia it is expressly forbidden to build churches, synagogues, temples, and it is illegal for Christians and others even to meet in their own homes to worship.
The Israeli law of citizenship and other related laws confer on all citizens the same rights and responsibilities. This applies to non-Jews as fully as to Jews. Arabs are full citizens of the state, they may vote in all elections, they may form political parties (and there are quite a few of them), they may stand for parliament (and a great many serve in it), they serve as members of the Supreme Court, as judges in other courts, as university teachers and professors, 20% of all students in all universities are Arabs (with Arabs forming 18% of the population), and so on. There is, quite flatly, no law or regulation calling for any form of apartheid. Go to Israel (and it may help you a lot to do so) and watch: no restaurants barred to Arabs, no shops barred to Arabs (Christian or Muslim), no buses for Jews only, no trains, no university campuses, no hotels, no beaches. All Israelis have the same rights.
Not only that, but consider the situation of women in Muslim countries, especially now that Salafi and other radical Muslim groups are taking overacross the region. In Israel, women have full rights with men. That includes Muslim and Christian women. In all Muslim countries, homosexuals face hanging, flogging, and other cruel punishments. In Israel, they hold gay pride marches. Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish men who are gay only have rights and protection under the law in Israel.
I have hinted at religious freedom and its denial in all Muslim states. The Israeli position has been set out thus:
“Every person in Israel enjoys freedom of conscience, of belief, of religion, and of worship. This freedom is guaranteed to every person in every enlightened, democratic regime, and therefore it is guaranteed to every person in Israel. It is one of the fundamental principles upon which the State of Israel is based… This freedom is partly based on Article 83 of the Palestine Order in Council of 1922, and partly it is one of those fundamental rights that “are not written in the book” but derive directly from the nature of out state as a peace-loving, democratic state’… On the basis of the rules – and in accordance with the Declaration of Independence – every law and every power will be interpreted as recognizing freedom of conscience, of belief, of religion, and of worship.”
I find it remiss of you, as someone endowed with considerable intellect, to have been so grossly misled about the reality of life in Israel. Your statement goes beyond the limits of reasonable and fair discourse. I can only consider you to have been misled by unprincipled persons who wish to disseminate falsehoods about Israel for base motives. In the face of the facts I have given and your freedom to board a plane to Israel in order to see all of this for yourself, I have to ask you to apologize to the citizens of a moral, ethical and democratic people, both Jews and Arabs, who have endured almost daily attacks from enemies determined to wipe them from the face of the planet. That Jewish Israelis have had the patience and moral strength to hold out the hand of friendship to so many Arab citizens while experiencing suicide attacks and rocket fire from their brethren across the border should inspire you to think again. As a university teacher you have a responsibility to dissociate yourself from such a totally explicit lie as the one you have uttered. Please reassure me that you understand the points I have tried to make.
Dr. Denis MacEoin