Noted British physicist Stephen Hawking has joined an international academic boycott by refusing to attend a prominent upcoming conference in Israel citing his concern for that nation's treatment of Palestinians and the ongoing occupation of their land.
Though a series of confusing news reports on Wednesday left some confusion about whether or not Hawking's decision to not attend the June presidential conference was based on health concerns rather than a political position, clarified statements from Cambridge University, where Hawking works, have now made the issue more clear.
As the Associated Press reported just before noon on Wednesday:
The University of Cambridge released a statement Wednesday indicating that Hawking had told the Israelis last week that he would not be attending "based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott."
University officials said they had "previously understood" that Hawking's decision was based solely on health concerns — he is 71 and has severe disabilities — but had now been told otherwise by Hawking's office.
The decision means that one of the world's most famous scientists has joined a boycott organized to protest Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
And Ali Abunimah, editor of the Electronic Intifada, writes:
It is fully confirmed that Professor Stephen Hawking pulled out of a conference in Israel later this month in solidarity with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions. [...]
Given his stature this was as much a victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as it was a major blow to Israeli prestige and propaganda, especially since the conference in question is hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Though Hawking has still not announced his decision personally, a post on the website of British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), posted with Hawking's permission, states that the renowned scientist's decision to "respect the boycott" was "based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there."
A subsequent statement on the BRICUP website acknowledged there was "misinformation" circulating about the nature of Hawking's position. However, in fact, the group said they had seen the letter Professor Hawking sent to the Jerusalem organizers in which he gave "his clear reasons for not attending." BRICUP said they are seeking permission to release that letter but would not do so until Hawking's approval was given.
However, a statement put out by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), quoted one section from the Hawking letter which read:
“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.”
And as The Guardian reported:
Hawking's decision marks another victory in the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting Israeli academic institutions.
In April the Teachers' Union of Ireland became the first lecturers' association in Europe to call for an academic boycott of Israel, and in the United States members of the Association for Asian American Studies voted to support a boycott, the first national academic group to do so.
In the four weeks since Hawking's participation in the Jerusalem event was announced, he has been bombarded with messages from Britain and abroad as part of an intense campaign by boycott supporters trying to persuade him to change his mind. In the end, Hawking told friends, he decided to follow the advice of Palestinian colleagues who unanimously agreed that he should not attend.
Organizers of the fifth annual president's conference in Israel, this year called Facing Tomorrow, decried Hawking's decision.
"The academic boycott against Israel is in our view outrageous and improper," said conference chairman Israel Maimon in a statement.
And vitriol followed on social media, with many repugnant personal statements being made about Hawking for his choice to respect the boycott.
But proponents of Palestinian rights and boycott supporters roundly applauded Hawking's stance and pushed back against the personal attacks levied against him. For its part, the PSC stated:
[We are] appalled at the personalized, offensive and vicious attacks on Professor Stephen Hawking, including via social media, simply for speaking out on this matter. Many will be taken aback at the extreme reaction among Israel’s supporters to Professor Hawking’s support for the Palestinian call for boycott. We urge those opposed to boycott, disinvestment and sanctions to respect freedom of speech.