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Hawking’s boycott of Israel sparks angry debate


Stephen Hawking, the celebrated British physicist, has cancelled plans to attend a conference in Israel in protest over the state’s occupation of Palestine, it emerged on Wednesday.


Stephen Hawking, the celebrated British physicist, has joined an international academic boycott of Israel, cancelling a scheduled appearance at a conference in the country later this year.

Hawking, a former Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and one of the best-known physicists of his generation, had been due to appear at a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, entitled 'Facing Tomorrow', this June.

But the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported on Wednesday that Hawking informed Peres earlier this month that he has now decided not to attend the event following pleas from Hawking’s Palestinian colleagues.

“I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott,” Hawking said in the letter, extracts of which were published in the Guardian.

“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 news has sparked a furore in Israel and among the country’s supporters, with Israel Maimon, chairman of the body responsible for organising the conference, describing Hawking's decision to withdraw as "outrageous and wrong".

"The use of an academic boycott against Israel is outrageous and improper, particularly for those to whom the spirit of liberty is the basis of the human and academic mission," he said.

"Israel is a democracy in which everyone can express their opinion, whatever it may be. A boycott decision is incompatible with open democratic discourse."

Boycott gathering momentum

However Hawking is just the latest - albeit one of the most high-profile - member of a growing group of academics who, along with writers, artists and entertainers, have joined a boycott of Israel that has gathered in momentum over the past few years.

In 2002 a group of UK academics, including the likes of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, sent an open letter to the Guardian calling for fellow academics to sever professional dealings with Israel “unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians”.

Since then, a number of other academic institutions in Europe, the US and around the world have joined the movement and in 2005 the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign was launched to further the cause.

Last month, the Teachers' Union of Ireland became the first lecturers' association in Europe to call for an academic boycott of Israel.

Others who have refused to travel to Israel in protest at the country’s actions over Palestine include Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Annie Lennox and Mike Leigh.

Supporters of the boycott claim that the Israeli government will be pressurised into changing their strategy towards Palestine, pointing to a similar boycott of apartheid South Africa as proof of the tactic’s potential for success.

Academics split over merits of boycott

But others, including a number of prominent academics and those opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, have voiced scepticism over the effectiveness of such a boycott.

They include the renowned linguist, philosopher, historian and activist Noam Chomsky, who warned in a 2010 interview that a general boycott of Israel is "a gift to Israeli hardliners and their American supporters" and could end up causing more harm than good.

In 2006, Sari Nusseibeh, president of the Palestinian Al-Quds University, sparked controversy in his homeland by criticising the academic boycott, saying that it risks isolating one of the sections of Israeli society most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

"If we are to look at Israeli society, it is within the academic community that we've had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals," he told The Associated Press. "If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach."

However, Hawking’s decision to boycott June’s conference, which former US president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair are both expected to attend, has been heralded by pro-Palestine groups.

The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine said Hawking had made “an independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there”.

‘Extreme reaction’ to Hawking’s decision

Meanwhile, the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) attacked those who have criticised Hawking over his backing of the boycott.

Many of those angered by the physicist’s decision have taken to social media to voice their displeasure with posts on Twitter and Facebook ranging from expressions of disappointment to accusations of anti-semitism and comments mocking Hawking’s physical condition.

“The anti-Semite Stephen Hawking can’t even wipe his own ass,” commented one internet poster.

“Many will be taken aback at the extreme reaction among Israel’s supporters to Professor Hawking’s support for the Palestinian call for boycott,” the PSC said on its website.

“We urge those opposed to boycott, disinvestment and sanctions to respect freedom of speech.”

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