British physicist Stephen Hawking has dropped plans to attend a major international conference in Israel in June, citing his belief that he should respect a Palestinian call to boycott contacts with Israeli academics.
The University of Cambridge released a statement Wednesday indicating that Hawking had told the Israelis last week that he would not be attending "based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott."
University officials said earlier in the day they had "previously understood" that Hawking's decision was based solely on health concerns — he is 71 and has severe disabilities — but had now been told otherwise by Hawking's office.
The decision means that one of the world's most famous scientists has joined a boycott organized to protest Israel's treatment of Palestinians. He is one of the most prominent figures to endorse the strategy, designed to bring pressure on the Israeli government.
The scientist had earlier agreed to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, hosted by President Shimon Peres, in late June, but has now changed his mind. The theme of the meeting is "Facing Tomorrow 2013."
Tim Holt, acting communications director at the University of Cambridge, said early in the day that Hawking's decision was based strictly on health concerns. Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
"For health reasons, his doctors said he should not be flying at the moment so he's decided not to attend," said Holt. "He is 71 years old. He's fine, but he has to be sensible about what he can do."
The university later changed its position after consulting Hawking's office. The change was made after Israeli officials insisted Hawking had cited the boycott when informing organizers that he would not attend.
The Israeli Presidential Conference, now in its fifth year, brings together statesmen and leading experts in various disciplines to discuss ways to address the world's problems. The goal, organizers say, is to identify challenges and propose solutions.
Hawking's endorsement of the boycott prompted an angry response from organizers. Conference Chairman Israel Maimon said 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," 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 three-day meeting that begins on June 18.
The boycott campaign is led by Palestinians, Israeli leftists and other supporters who oppose Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and are attuned to the power of celebrity in this age.
It has had some success, deterring a string of famous entertainers from performing. Elvis Costello and the Pixies canceled concerts, as well as the British dance band Klaxon and the Gorillaz Sound System. Israel has also faced occasional boycotts of its academics, unions and in some cases commercial products.
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.
"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," the committee said on its website.
In 1967, Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories the Palestinians seek for a state. Two decades of intermittent negotiations on the terms of such a state, in between bouts of violence, have failed to produce results. In the meantime, Israel has settled more than half a million of its citizens in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, while restricting Palestinian trade and movement.
Heller reported from Jerusalem.