Leading Physicist Stephen Hawking has created an international stir by joining a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and travel to Israel after sending a letter declining an invitation to attend the President’s Conference. While Cambridge originally claimed that Hawking was not attending due to his health, Hawking sent a letter to Israeli President Shimon Peres saying that he was in fact boycotting Israel due to its Palestinian policies.
The letter was an embarrassment for the University of Cambridge which appeared like it was trying to spin the declination of the invitation for reasons of health. Tim Holt, acting communications director at the University of Cambridge, issued a statement that tied the decision to Hawking’s continued struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known as Lou Gehrig’s disease:”For health reasons, his doctors said he should not be flying at the moment so he’s decided not to attend. He is 71 years old. He’s fine, but he has to be sensible about what he can do.”
However, Hawking sent a letter to Peres clearly stating that he was refusing on principle to travel to the conference in Israel. Hawking described Israel’s treatment and policy of the Palestinians as a “disaster” and reprehensible. Hawking stated that he initially accepted the invitation with the intention to speak out against the policies: “Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.” He then explained that “I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement, but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank. However, 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.”
There are various groups of academics supporting the boycott of Israeli products as well as academic and cultural ties with Israel, including a group with Desmond Mpilo Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus. The boycott has also received support of groups this year like the Asian American Studies Association. Various divestment policies have been proposed or passed at American academic institutions.
Ironically, MIT linguistics professor and political author Noam Chomsky actually opposed the ban by scholars but was himself banned from Israel simply because of his political views by the Israeli government.
The Hawking controversy reveals a deepening divide among academics in the United States over the boycott — an increasingly heated debate. The Hawking decision comes as Israel has ordered the building of new settlements opposed by the United States and the world community as well as a report this year from the United Nations stating that Israeli have taken a “heavy toll” on the rights and sovereignty of Palestinians. The U.N. complained about the creeping annexation” by Israel in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Others have disagreed that such boycotts are productive and insist that more interaction with Israel is better for pushing reforms. Israel Maimon, chairman of the Presidential Conference, added this week that “Israel is a democracy in which all individuals are free to express their opinions, whatever they may be. The imposition of a boycott is incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.”
The response to Hawking from conservative publications have been extreme. One such site asked “Would Professor Hawking ever survive in any Arab country or under the Palestinian autocracy he shamefully defends?” The Israeli publication noted that “[w]hile in the Arab world disabled people have been called ‘the invisibles,’ because they are segregated and hidden from the public eye, Israel’s work with illness and disabilities would merit a book in itself.”
Hawking’s letter has put the boycott and divestment movement on the front pages of international newspapers and is likely to rekindle the debate on U.S. campuses.