THE physicist Stephen Hawking has dropped plans to attend a major conference in Israel in June, prompting criticism from Israeli officials who believe he has joined a boycott in protest at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The world-famous scientist had earlier agreed to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, hosted by President Shimon Peres, in late June, but has now changed his mind.
Tim Holt, media director at the University of Cambridge, said Professor Hawking’s decision was based strictly on health concerns.
“For health reasons, his doctors said he should not be flying at the moment so he’s decided not to attend,” said Mr Holt.
“He is 71 years old. He’s fine, but he has to be sensible about what he can do.”
A University of Cambridge statement released earlier yesterday cited “personal reasons” for his decision. Professor Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
In Israel, however, the physicist’s decision was viewed as an indication of support for the boycott. Organisers of the conference said an e-mail from Prof Hawking cited the boycott as a reason not to attend.
Conference chairman Israel Maimon said Prof Hawking’s decision was “unjustifiable and wrong”.
“The academic boycott against Israel is, in our view, outrageous and improper, certainly for someone for whom the spirit of liberty lies at the basis of his human and academic mission,” Mr Maimon said, calling the imposition of a boycott incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.
He noted that former world leaders, including Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair, plan to attend the conference.
The boycott is being led by Palestinians, Israeli left-wingers and other supporters who oppose Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.
Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2010 over the issue of continued Jewish settlement building on land seized in the 1967 war.
Palestinians want to create an independent state on the captured territories. The United States is seeking to revive the negotiations.
The boycott has had some success, deterring a string of famous entertainers from performing.
Elvis Costello and the Pixies cancelled concerts, as well as the British dance band The Klaxons and the Gorillaz Sound System.
Israel has also faced occasional boycotts of its academics, unions and in some cases commercial products
Prof Hawking’s decision was hailed by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine as support for its goal of severing academics’ connections with Israel.