JERUSALEM (JTA) – British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking clarified Wednesday that he decided to cancel a planned visit to Israel to adhere to an academic boycott of the Jewish state.
Earlier on Wednesday, University of Cambridge spokesman Tim Holt said Hawking's cancellation of the trip planned for June, to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference: Facing Tomorrow 2013, was due to health reasons, not a boycott. The statement came after the U.K. Guardian reported that the reason for the cancellation was a boycott.
But the university spokesman corrected himself late Wednesday, saying Hawking's office had contacted him to make clear that the decision was due to the boycott.
“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," Holt said an e-mail sent to the Canadian Jewish News and shared with JTA. “We had understood previously that his decision was based purely on health grounds having been advised by doctors not to fly.”
Israel Maimon, chairman of the Israeli conference, expressed dismay at the news.
“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," Maimon said in a statement issued Wednesday after the publication of the Guardian article. "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 Guardian reported Wednesday that Hawking, 71, wrote Peres a letter last week saying he would not participate in the June conference. According to the Guardian, a statement published with the scientist's approval by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine said it was Hawking's "independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there."
After his participation in the event was confirmed in early April, Hawking was "bombarded" with messages to change his mind by boycott supporters, according to the Guardian.
Hawking, head of the practical mathematics and physics department at Cambridge University, last visited Israel in 2006 at the invitation of the British Embassy. He visited Israel three times prior to that as well, according to the newspaper.
The conference, which is in its fifth year, draws world leaders and intellectuals for public discussions on a variety of subjects. Some 5,000 people from around the world, including executives of major global technology companies, academics, Nobel laureates, artists, and past and present heads of state have confirmed their attendance for this year.
Hawking, who has ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, cannot move his body and uses a wheelchair. He communicates through a computerized voice system.