Professor Stephen Hawking is backing the academic boycott of Israel by pulling out of a conference hosted by President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem as a protest at Israel's treatment of Palestinians, The Guardian reported Wednesday.
According to the British newspaper, Hawking, 71, the world-renowned theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, had accepted an invitation to headline the fifth annual president's conference, Facing Tomorrow, in June, which features major international personalities, attracts thousands of participants and this year will celebrate Peres' 90th birthday.
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However, the report said, last week he wrote a brief letter to President Peres to say he had changed his mind. Hawking has not announced his decision publicly, but a statement published by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine with Hawking's approval described it as "his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there."
Hawking in Israel in 2006 (Photo: Mati Milstein)
For some time his motives had remained unclear and the Israeli response to the news succeeded in confusing even Cambridge's spokesperson. Earlier Wednesday, the university rejected the claims reported by the Guardian, claiming that Hawking had canceled his participation for medical reasons.
However, Cambridge later retracted its denial and confirmed that the physicist's motives for canceling his performance stemmed from his support of the boycott movement.
“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.
“We had understood previously that his decision was based purely on health grounds having been advised by doctors not to fly,” the statement said.
The Guardian first reported that in the four weeks since Hawking's participation in the Jerusalem conference was announced, he had 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, who is in very poor health, told friends he decided to follow the advice of Palestinian colleagues who unanimously agreed that he should not attend.
By participating in the boycott, the report said, Hawking joins a small but growing list of British personalities who have turned down invitations to visit Israel, including Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Annie Lennox and Mike Leigh.
The Guardian said Hawking has visited Israel four times in the past. Most recently, in 2006, he delivered public lectures at Israeli and Palestinian universities as the guest of the British embassy in Tel Aviv. At the time, he said he was "looking forward to coming out to Israel and the Palestinian territories and excited about meeting both Israeli and Palestinian scientists," according to the report.
Since then, according to The Guardian, his attitude to Israel appears to have hardened. In 2009, Hawking denounced Israel's three-week offensive in Gaza, telling Al-Jazeera that Israel's response to rocket fire from Gaza was "plain out of proportion … The situation is like that of South Africa before 1990 and cannot continue."
Presidential Conference Chairman Israel Maimon responded to Hawking's decision by saying, "The use of an academic boycott is outrageous and improper, especially by those for whom the spirit of liberty is at the basis of the human and academic mission."
"The boycott decision is incompatible with open and democratic discourse," he added.
Noam (Dabul) Dvir contributed to the report
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