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Stephen Hawking confirms he pulled out of “Israel” conference due to boycott, not “health” reasons

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by Ali Abunimah, EI

It is fully confirmed that Professor Stephen Hawking pulled out of a conference in Israel later this month in solidarity with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

This confirmation comes after erroneous claims today that Hawking had pulled out for “health” reasons. Here’s what happened. Here’s the full story.

When The Guardian reported early today that world renowned physicist Stephen Hawking had pulled out of a conference in Israel later this month, it made headlines around the world.

Hawking’s decision was first announced yesterday by BRICUP, the UK campaign for the academic boycott of Israel.

Given his stature this was as much a victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions(BDS) movement as it was a major blow to Israeli prestige and propaganda, especially since the conference in question is hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Incorrect claims it was for “health reasons”

But this afternoon, a contradictory reported was circulated by the pro-Israel website The Commentator, claiming that Hawking’s withdrawal was for health reasons and had nothing to do with the boycott.

The Commentator said it has spoken to a Cambridge university spokesman, and claimed:

When asked for further information, the spokesperson confirmed that the BRICUP organisation had “assumed” Hawking’s position on the matter, and that it was fundamentally untrue.

The Associated Press has also reported this, seemingly backing up the claims in The Commentator:

LONDON (AP) — Physicist Stephen Hawking has dropped plans to attend a major conference in Israel in June, prompting criticism Wednesday from Israeli officials who believe he has joined a boycott organized to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The world-famous scientist — who suffers from a disease that has left him largely immobilized — 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 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,” Holt said. “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 Wednesday cited “personal reasons” for his decision.

Emphatically, Hawking boycotted Israel

But overwhelming evidence supports BRICUP’s and The Guardian’s initial reports that Hawking has indeed taken his decision in solidarity with Palestinians, and this has now been reconfirmed by Cambridge University.

Today, BRICUP updated the statement on its website as follows:

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.

UPDATE 8 May: The statement above has been issued with the specific endorsement of Professor Hawking’s office. His staff sent us the following message on 7 May “Just spoken to Tim [Tim Holt, Acting Director of Communications for Cambridge University] and we are both in agreement with the quote – and as you say – sensible to get this out rather than a lot of differing opinions.” We have seen the letter that Professor Hawking sent to the Jerusalem organisers giving his clear reasons for not attending and are seeking his permission to release the letter but will not do so until we have his approval. We regret the misinformation being circulated about this matter.

I can confirm that I have seen the full email correspondence quoted in the updated statement above.

Moreover, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) published a press release this afternoon quoting the letter that from Hawking to the conference organizers:

Professor Hawking’s letter to the conference guest speaker organiser stated: “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.”

Cambridge reconfirms Hawking’s boycott

Finally, the anti-Palestinian website CIF Watch says it has received an email from Holt retracting the claim that Hawking had pulled out for health reasons and confirming that Hawking had sent the letter quoted by PSC.

CIF Watch says:

Holt recently informed us via an email of the following new statement just released by the University:

“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.”

This has now also been confirmed by the Associated Press.

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