Hawking battered over Israeli conference boycott

Facebook memes ask scientist to stop using the Israel-designed chip that allows him to talk

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Stephen Hawking (photo credit: CC-BY elhombredenegro/Flickr)
Stephen Hawking (photo credit: CC-BY elhombredenegro/Flickr)

World renowned scientist Stephen Hawking’s decision to join an academic boycott of Israel and cancel his participation a Jerusalem conference sponsored by Shimon Peres drew the anger of Israeli officials and social media users on Thursday.

Israel Maimon, chairman of the annual Presidential Conference, on Wednesday decried Hawking’s withdrawal as “outrageous and inappropriate, especially for one so fundamentally associated with the spirit of independence as a person and an academic.”

Originally, the University of Cambridge, where Hawking is the research director at the Center for Theoretical Cosmology, cited health reasons as the cause of Hawking’s cancellation. However, when presented with the full text of the scientist’s letter, the university was forced to take a different stance. On Thursday morning the university apologized for the confusion.

“I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank,” Hawking wrote in the letter, published on Thursday by The Guardian.

“However, I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster,” he wrote.

Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to London, called the decision “a great shame,” adding that Hawking should have promoted progress and peace instead of caving in to extremists.

Some critics noted that Hawking has visited China, and reportedly Iran, in recent years without any evident humanitarian concerns. “As far as I am aware, there was no statement at the time from Hawking refusing to travel to the Islamic Republic out of ‘respect’ for the country’s political dissidents, or until the government stopped executing homosexuals,” wrote James Bloodworth on the Left Foot Forward blog.

Palestinian academics, however, were happy with the move.

A lecturer at Bir Zeit University, Samia al-Botmeh, said he was pleased Hawking acted on moral grounds when it came to fighting Israel as a colonial ruler and occupying force.

On Facebook, pictures proliferated heavily criticizing Hawking’s decision, which some said was hypocritical, or a sign that brain power was a zero-sum game.

One meme asked Hawking — who has suffered from a motor neuron disease related to ALS for decades — to act on his beliefs and stop using the Israeli technology he’s used to talk and communicate since 1997, since the chip was created at the Intel research and design center in Israel.

A meme criticizing Stephen Hawking's decision to boycott Israel (photo credit: screen capture/StudentsForIsrael/Facebook)
A meme criticizing Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott Israel (photo credit: screen capture/StudentsForIsrael/Facebook)

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