World renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has found himself in the midst of a media-fueled misunderstanding over his recent decision to boycott an international conference hosted by Israel in protest of that country’s treatment of Palestinians.
Professor Hawking’s announcement that he has declined an invitation to headline the fifth annual Presidential Conference, hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, comes on the occasion of Peres’s 90th birthday.
Initially the theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge had accepted the invitation, but came to reconsider once campaigners for Palestinian rights, who make up a vocal segment of the Cambridge academic community, pressured Hawking to skip the event.
Cambridge University first claimed that Hawking’s decision to avoid the conference was due to his ill health – he has lived with motor neuron disease for 50 years, a condition which confines him to a wheelchair and requires him to communicate with the use of a computer terminal.
On Wednesday, though, Cambridge conceded that the professor’s decision was based on his politics, rather than his medical condition, once it was presented by The Guardian with the text of a letter sent by Hawking to organizers of the conference in Jerusalem.
The British university issued a statement, saying: “We have now received confirmation from Prof Hawking’s office that a letter was sent on Friday to the Israeli president’s office regarding his decision not to attend … based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.”
Palestinian academics such as Samia al-Botmeh of Birzeit University in the West Bank welcomed the news.
“We tried to communicate two points to him. First, that Israel is a colonial entity that involves violations of the rights of the Palestinians, including academic freedom, and then asking him to stand in solidarity with Palestinian academic colleagues who have called for solidarity from international academics in the form of boycotting Israeli academia and academic institutions,” al-Botmeh told The Guardian.
Palestinian women walk past a mural on the theme of return of refugees to their land in what is now Israel in the southern Gaza Strip refugee camp of Rafah on May 8, 2012.
Daniel Taub, Israeli’s Ambassador to London, unsurprisingly expressed dissapointment with Hawking’s decision.
“It is a great shame that Professor Hawking has withdrawn from the president’s conference … Rather than caving into pressure from political extremists, active participation in such events is a far more constructive way to promote progress and peace.”
This year’s Presidential Conference is expected to attract 5,000 attendees from around the world, including academics, artists and former heads of state. Former US president Bill Clinton, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, Prince Albert of Monaco and Barbra Streisand have accepted invitations, according to organizers.
In April the Teachers’ Union of Ireland became the first lecturers’ association in Europe to join in the boycott, following actions by several individual universities and students’ associations around the world. A wider Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has seen general success in recent years with the academic world, actors like Bruce Willis and Jean-Claude Van Damme and touring musicians including Stevie Wonder and Roger Waters.
Hawking has visited Israel several times in the past, though he became critical of the country’s treatment of the Palestinians during the 2008-2009 Gaza Massacre, known in Israel as IDF Operation Cast Lead.