Stephen Hawking boycotts Jerusalem conference, sparking controversy in Israel

Stephen Hawking (Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM – British physicist Stephen Hawking caused uproar in Israel on Wednesday after a report in The Guardian stated that the genius scientist, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease and is severely disabled, had heeded calls by Palestinians to
boycott a prestigious conference in Israel next month.

According to the report, Hawking, who was to have been a keynote speaker at Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Presidents Conference, sent a letter to organizers explaining that he had to reconsider his participation after receiving e-mails from Palestinian academics calling for him to “respect the boycott.”

“In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference,” Hawking wrote, the Canadian Globe and Mail reported. “Had I attended I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”

A spokesperson for Cambridge University, where Hawking is a professor, initially denied the reports, saying that the scientist had canceled for health reasons.

The Guardian reporter who first broke the story later surfaced a letter on Cambridge letterhead and reportedly from Hawking saying that he would not attend for political reasons, as well as an email exchange confirming as much. The Cambridge spokesperson later released a statement confirming Hawking was participating in the boycott, rather than holding back for health reasons.

A growing number of academics and intellectuals have joined an international campaign to boycott Israel and Israel-related events in protest of the country's continued occupation of Palestinian territories.

By late evening on Wednesday, Hawking’s decision not to attend the conference -- whether due to health or politics -- was trending on Twitter in Israel.



As Palestinian and pro-Palestinian activists chalked this up as a victory, some Israelis called Hawking’s actions misguided. In an open letter to the professor, published by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, writer Carlo Strenger wrote:

Let it first be said that I have been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories for many years, and that I have voiced this opposition with all means at my disposal. I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is indefensible morally, stupid politically and unwise strategically, and I will continue opposing it as long as I can.

This being said, I have always found it morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible that many British academics have been calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This call is based on a moral double standard that I would not expect from a community whose mission it is to maintain intellectual integrity.

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.



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