UPDATE: The University of Cambridge has now said that Hawking’s decision was based on “advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott”. The headline on this post has been changed to reflect this update (it was originally ‘Stephen Hawking’s ‘boycott’ of Israeli conference may be for health reasons’).
Physicist Stephen Hawking’s confirmation that he will not be attending a conference in Israel has re-ignited long-simmering debate over boycotts of the country by some researchers.
But the University of Cambridge insists the decision was taken on medical grounds. After initially stating the decision was taken on medical grounds, the University of Cambridge, UK, has confirmed that Hawking’s decision was out of respect for the current boycott.
A statement from the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP), a group supporting an academic boycott of Israel over the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, said that Hawking had declined an invitation to a conference run under the auspices of the Israeli president. The group said in a statement — which has been reported as being released with Hawking’s approval — that “this is his independent decision to respect the boycott” and was based on his knowledge of the situation and “the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there”.
An initial statement from the University of Cambridge, where Hawking is director of research at the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, said (in full), “Professor Hawking will not be attending the conference in Israel in June for health reasons — his doctors have advised against him flying.”
However, in a follow-up statement the university confirmed 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.”
The initial BRICUP statement triggered a surge of news coverage about Hawking’s ‘boycott’ of the event. Calls for academic boycotts of Israel are longstanding in the United Kingdom, and have been proposed numerous times at meetings of academic trade unions, with varying success. Although some researchers have backed boycotts, others call them counterproductive.
Israel Maimon, the chairman of the Israeli Presidential Conference, said in his own statement that Hawking’s announcement was “unjustifiable and wrong” and that “the academic boycott against Israel is in our view outrageous and improper”.