An Israeli photojournalist who suffers from ALS, the same disease as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, has written a letter urging the professor, who he says was his hero, to reconsider his decision to boycott Israel.
Esteban Alterman, who photographed Hawking before a lecture he gave at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the University of Cambridge scientist’s decision to cancel his participation in June’s fifth annual Presidential Conference in Jerusalem “undermines the battle… to find cures… for our common disease.”
Posted on Facebook, Alterman’s letter reads in full: “Dear Dr. Hawking, My name is Esteban Alterman, I live in Jerusalem and I have been suffering with ALS since 2006. That same year, I was still working as a photojournalist and I had the unique opportunity to take your picture before your lecture at the Hebrew University. Two years later, when I was officially diagnosed with ALS, I couldn’t stop thinking about our meeting, which of course you will not remember. For you, I was just another photographer; for me, you were a hero. Today, we have something in common. We don’t share the same profession, and our backgrounds couldn’t be more different. But we do share what seems like an impossible fight against our common disease.
“Your decision to join the academic boycott of Israel undermines the battle for scientific discovery and advancement that has the potential to find cures, or even simply remedies to give us our quality of life back, for our common disease, and those of others who suffer in their own ways.
“Israel’s politics should be divorced from its genuine efforts to advance the cause of medicine and science. What you perceive as an effort to produce change politically will instead simply adversely affect the future of independent academic pursuit.
“I hope that the headlines tomorrow report that you’ve decided to support academic freedom and come to Israel after all.
“Wishing that you and I both may prosper from the fruits of current Israeli ALS research, I send you my best wishes, Esteban Alterman, Jerusalem, Israel.”
After some confusion, the University of Cambridge on Wednesday afternoon confirmed that the renowned professor was boycotting the conference event for political reasons.
“We have now received confirmation from Professor Hawking’s office that a letter was sent on Friday to the Israeli President’s office regarding his decision not to attend the Presidential Conference, based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott,” a Cambridge spokesperson said. “We had understood previously that his decision was based purely on health grounds having been advised by doctors not to fly.”
A source involved in planning the Presidential Conference would not comment directly on the contents of Hawking’s letter to Peres, but confirmed to The Times of Israel that Hawking’s decision to back out “has nothing to do with health.”
The Cambridge professor suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), is almost completely paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, and uses a speech generating device to communicate. His health has been steadily deteriorating for decades.
The heads of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine organization published a statement on its website saying its members “understand” that Hawking declined attending the conference because of “his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there.”
The annual Presidential Conference brings together “world leaders, international scholars, activists, poets and scientists, artists and clergy, entrepreneurs, economists and industrialists, as well as representatives of the next generation of leaders” in order to discuss issues of geopolitics, economics, environment, culture and more, the conference’s website says. This year’s conference is also a celebration of Peres’s 90th birthday.
Presidential Conference chairman Israel Maimon decried Hawking’s boycott of the conference as “outrageous and inappropriate, especially for one so fundamentally associated with the spirit of independence as a person and an academic.”
Hawking, who has visited Israel several times in the past to meet with Israeli and Palestinian academics, has long been a critic of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. During 2009’s Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, Hawking said in an interview with Al-Jazeera that Israel’s military campaign was “plain out of proportion.”
“If Israel wants peace, it will have to talk to Hamas,” Hawking said at the time. “Hamas are the democratically elected leaders of the Palestinian people, and cannot be ignored.”