Stephen Hawking, the noted British physicist, has reportedly opted to endorse the academic boycott of Israel and withdraw from the fifth annual Presidential Conference in Jerusalem in June, where he was slated to give a talk, the British daily Guardian reported Wednesday.
As of Wednesday morning, the website of the Presidential Conference no longer listed Hawking among the speakers at the event.
The Presidential Conference’s chairman, Israel Maimon, decried Hawking’s withdrawal in obedience to the embargo as “outrageous and inappropriate, especially for one so fundamentally associated with the spirit of independence as a person and an academic.” He further noted that an academic boycott of Israel, a democracy in which all can make their views heard, was especially inapposite.
Last week, Hawking informed President Shimon Peres, the patron of the conference, that he would not be attending, but did not publicize his decision. Later, however, he permitted the heads of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine organization to publicize a statement describing the move as “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 report said.
Since the announcement that Hawking would be attending, an intense campaign both from within England and abroad was reportedly undertaken to convince the renowned theoretical physicist to reconsider.
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.
Hawking, who has visited the country 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.”
The initiative to boycott Israeli academics and institutions of higher education is part of a larger Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel that which pushes for a complete cultural and academic boycott until a final peace settlement is reached with the Palestinian people, including a return to the pre-1967 armistice lines and the resettlement of all descendants of Palestinian refugees.
Hawking wouldn’t be the first British celebrity in academia or the arts to boycott Israel over the growing discord with the Palestinians. Musicians Elvis Costello and Annie Lennox, among others, have specifically said they would not perform in Israel.
The widespread international call for an academic boycott of Israel has in the past been taken up by UK institutions. The University and College Union, the British academics’ trade union, recently faced charges that such measures were motivated by anti-Semitism.
In December, British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould denounced such boycott efforts, saying that academic freedom is the essential underpinning of any liberal and tolerant society that values knowledge and encourages debate.
Hawking’s health may have also been a factor in his decision. The 71-year-old 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 several years.
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.