Israelis furious over Stephen Hawking’s conference pullout over Palestinian boycott call

Globe and Mail Update (includes correction)

British theoretical physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking lectures on his research, life and times the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, June 20, 2010. (DAVE CHIDLEY/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

British physicist Stephen Hawking has announced he is withdrawing from a leading Israeli conference in deference to a Palestinian call to boycott this and other Israeli events.

The decision by Prof. Hawking, who was to have been a key speaker at the Israeli Presidential Conference next month in Jerusalem, has infuriated conference organizers and delivered one of the biggest names yet to the ranks of the growing international campaign to boycott Israel.

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It also has drawn the enormous attention of Israelis themselves. By the end of the day Wednesday in Israel, items related to Prof. Hawking’s announcement were the number one, three and six of the most widely read pieces on the Haaretz newspaper’s website.

The annual Presidential Conference, now in its fifth year, is hosted by Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his efforts to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

According to its website, the 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. This year’s conference also is a celebration of Mr. Peres’s 90th birthday.

In his letter to conference organizers, Prof. Hawking stated he had reconsidered his earlier agreement to participate in the event. “I have received a number of e-mails from Palestinian academics,” he wrote. “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.”

The Israeli chairman of the conference, Israel Maimon, denounced Prof. Hawking’s decision to boycott the event as “outrageous and inappropriate, especially for one so fundamentally associated with the spirit of independence as a person and an academic.”

The British physicist, who has visited Israel on at least four occasions in the past, has been a frequent critic of Israeli policy. During the three-week-long conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2008-09, he described Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in retaliation to frequent rocket attacks as “plain out of proportion.”

“If Israel wants peace, it will have to talk to Hamas,” he said at the time. “Hamas are the democratically elected leaders of the Palestinian people and cannot be ignored.”

Prof Hawking, 71, a Cambridge University cosmologist, spent six weeks in 2010 at the University of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario, where he collaborated on research at the university’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Diagnosed at 21 with a motor-neuron condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS, he uses a wheelchair and speaks through a speech synthesizer, making him the world’s most recognizable scientist.

Prof. Hawking is best known in scientific circles for his research on the beginning of the universe.

The Hawking decision to boycott the Israeli event is likely to provide a significant boost to the worldwide boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, intended to put pressure on Israel to change its policies regarding Palestinians and the occupation of Arab territories.

Already, numerous artists and performers, such as Stevie Wonder and Alice Walker, have chosen not to perform in Israel or for Israeli benefits, and several European universities turn away Israeli academics seeking visiting professor status or deny their own faculty members opportunities to visit as professors in Israel.

The Hawking decision also may cause a backlash against Cambridge University, the physicist’s academic base.

Seemingly mindful of this, a spokesman for the university told reporters earlier Wednesday that Prof. Hawking was cancelling his plan to attend the Israeli conference due to health reasons.

“His doctors said he should not be flying at the moment so he’s decided not to attend,” the spokesman, Time Holt, said.

Later in the day, the university corrected itself. “We have now received confirmation from Professor Hawking’s office that a letter was sent on Friday to the Israeli President’s office regarding his decision not to attend the Presidential Conference, based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott,” a Cambridge spokesperson said.

Reaction in Israel was fast and furious. In a passionate appeal to Prof. Hawking to reconsider his position, Carlo Strenger, a reknowned psychoanalyst and chair of the Clinical Graduate Program in Psychology at Tel Aviv University, wrote that he regarded his fellow scientist’s decision to boycott as “hypocritical.”

“Yes, I think that Israel is guilty of human right violations in the West Bank,” Prof. Strenger wrote in an open letter in Haaretz Wednesday. “But these violations are negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China, to mention only a small number of examples.”

“How can you and your colleagues who argue for an academic boycott of Israel justify your double standard by singling out Israel?” he asked. “You are simply denying that Israel has been under existential threat for most of its existence.”

“Singling Israel out for academic boycott,” said Prof. Strenger, “is, I believe, a case of profound hypocrisy. It is a way to ventilate outrage about the world’s injustices where the cost is low.”

“I’m still waiting for the British academic who says he won’t co-operate with American institutions as long as Guantanamo is open, or as long as the U.S. continues targeted assassinations,” he added.

“Israel’s academia is largely liberal in its outlook, and many academics here have opposed Israel’s settlement policies for decades,” Prof. Strenger concluded. “But once again, British academics choose the easiest target to vent their rage in a way that does not contribute anything constructive to the Palestinian cause they support.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that although Bruce Willis postponed a promotional trip to Israel, there is no evidence he is boycotting the country.

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