Stephen Hawking on Wednesday stunned Israelis and set off a day of mixed reports about his motives for calling off plans to attend a major conference in Israel next month. But by the end of the day, it appeared clear that he was honoring the boycott of Israel set up by some pro-Palestinian groups. Early Wednesday, word spread that Hawking was going to skip the conference due to the boycott, but then a spokesman for the University of Cambridge, where Hawking is on the faculty, told The Guardian that the reason the visit had been called off was the scientist's health. Subsequently, the spokesman said he had been wrong, and that Hawking did want to honor the boycott.
The Guardian printed an excerpt from a letter Hawking sent to conference organizers in which he said: "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."
The decision of Hawking to honor the boycott was greeted as a huge boost to the movement to encourage scholars and others to stay away from Israel. For Israelis and supporters, to have such a prominent scientist honor the boycott -- which has been criticized as antithetical to academic values by many American scholarly groups -- was a major blow.