Physicist Stephen Hawking praised and decried for joining academic boycott of Israel

Renowned physicist's decision to pull out of conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres is praised by some but condemned by others

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 May, 2013, 2:08am

To some, it was another victory in the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting Israeli academic institutions. To others it was rank hypocrisy.

Stephen Hawking's decision last week to joint the academic boycott of Israel, by pulling out of a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem as a protest at Israel's treatment of Palestinians, has divided world opinion.

Hawking, 71, the world-renowned theoretical physicist and former 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.

Hawking is in very poor health, but early this month he wrote a brief letter to the Israeli president to say he had changed his mind. He 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".

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 month 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 he should not go.

Hawking's decision attracted abusive responses on Facebook, with many commentators focusing on his physical condition or accusing him of anti-Semitism.

By participating in the boycott, 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.

However, many artists, writers and academics have defied and even denounced the boycott, calling it ineffective and selective.

Ian McEwan, who was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 2011, responded to critics by saying: "If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed ... It's not great if everyone stops talking."

Critics of his decision point out that the celebrated scientist and author uses Israeli technology in the computer equipment that allows him to function.

Hawking, 71, has suffered from motor neurone disease for the past 50 years, and relies on a computer-based system to communicate. According to Shurat HaDin, an Israel law centre that represents victims of terrorism, the equipment has been provided by an Israeli hi-tech firm, Intel Israel, since 1997.

"Hawking's decision to join the boycott of Israel is quite hypocritical for an individual who prides himself on his whole intellectual accomplishment. His whole computer-based communications system runs on a chip designed by Israel's Intel team. I suggest if he truly wants to pull out of Israel he should also pull out his Intel Core i7 from his tablet," said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of Shurat HaDin.

Noam Chomsky, a prominent supporter of the Palestinian cause, has said that he supports the "boycott and divestment of firms that are carrying out operations in the occupied territories" but that a general boycott of Israel is "a gift to Israeli hardliners and their American supporters".

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".

But Hawking's attitude to Israel has hardened. In 2009, he denounced Israel's three-week attack on 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".

Israel Maimon, chairman of the presidential conference, called Hawking's decision outrageous and wrong.

"The use of an academic boycott against Israel is outrageous and improper… Israel is a democracy in which everyone can express their opinion. A boycott is incompatible with open democratic discourse."

In 2011, Israel's passed a law making a boycott call by an individual or organisation an offence that can result in compensation liable to be paid regardless of actual damage caused.

The Guardian