Stephen Hawking, the world famous British professor and theoretical physicist, has pulled out of a conference in Jerusalem in June hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, citing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. Hawking's decision makes him the latest, and one of the most famous, people to join an academic boycott of Israel that is part of the boycotts, sanctions, and divestment (BDS) movement. The movement aims to pressure Israel into recognizing Palestinian rights and complying with its obligations under international law.
Hawking's withdrawal from the Facing Tomorrow conference, which brings together world leaders and intellectuals for discussions on a variety of subjects, is a significant victory for the BDS movement. Hawking's high profile will bring increased publicity to the BDS cause, and perhaps encourage other academics to emulate him, as the movement gains momentum.
Following the original announcement of Hawking's participation in the event four weeks ago, he was "bombarded with messages from Britain and abroad as part of an intense campaign by boycott supporters trying to persuade him to change his mind." The initial reports that Hawking was boycotting the event due to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians was challenged by the University of Cambridge which said in a statement that he had withdrawn from the event due to "health reasons." This claim has since been shown to be false and has been retracted by the university. In a letter to the conference guest-speaker organizer, Hawking said: "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."
Hawking's decision follows calls earlier this year by the Teachers' Union of Ireland, and the Association for Asian American Studies in the U.S., for an academic boycott of Israel. He joins a growing list of other celebrities, including Roger Waters and Elvis Costello, who have also turned down invitations to visit Israel.
Hawking, who has previously compared the situation in Palestine to South Africa under apartheid in 2009 interview with Al-Jazeera, has predictably come in for some strong criticism for his decision. Israel Maimon, chairman of the presidential conference, has called his decision "outrageous and improper," while others have stooped to attacking him based on his physical condition.
As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gets set to return to Israel in two weeks as part of a renewed effort to push for peace between Israel and Palestine, Hawking's decision will hopefully help highlight Israel's ongoing human-rights violations and provoke further debate over how the international community can respond.