By James Dacey
Stephen Hawking has decided to pull out of the fifth Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow 2013, which is taking place in June. The world-famous British cosmologist and science communicator was due to deliver a keynote speech at the conference in Jerusalem, which boasts other presenters including Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev. But it appears that Hawking has made a late U-turn. That is according to a statement published by the British Committee for Universities for Palestine – an organization of UK-based academics, set up in response to the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel.
We understand that Professor Stephen Hawking has declined his invitation to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference Facing Tomorrow 2013, due to take place in Jerusalem on 18–20 June. This is his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there.
According to the British newspaper the Guardian, Hawking was “bombarded with messages from Britain and abroad” encouraging him to join an academic boycott of Israel, after it was announced four weeks ago that he would be appearing at this conference. Having considered the issues and discussed the situation with colleagues, Hawking has reached his decision to withdraw. This year’s Israeli Presidential Conference is focused on the human aspects that are shaping the world, including issues such as geopolitics, education and new media.
Hawking is not the first high-profile physicist to become embroiled in the politics of academic boycotts concerning Israel. The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg made the headlines in 2007 when he cancelled a trip to the UK where he was due to speak at Imperial College London in honour of the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam. In a letter at the time to the chair of the theoretical physics at Imperial republished in the Times Higher Education, Weinberg cited his perception of a widespread anti-Israel current of British opinion, especially among the intellectual establishment.
In the letter, Weinberg explained that he had also cancelled a trip to the UK in 2006 when he learned of the boycott of Israeli academics by the now-dissolved lecturers’ union NATFHE. “I know some will say that these boycotts are directed only against Israel, rather than generally against Jews. But given the history of attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicates a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than antisemitism.”
In pulling out of the Israeli Presidential Conference, Hawking joins a list of high-profile British public figures to boycott Israel, including film director Mike Leigh and the musicians Elvis Costello and Annie Lennox.
Tim Holt, acting director of communications at the University of Cambridge, has sent Physics World the following statement:
“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.”