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Hawking announced his decision on May 9, after it was initially reported a day earlier in the British newspaper The Guardian. In a letter to organizers, Hawking explained that he made the decision following appeals from Palestinian academics to withdraw. “Had I attended,” he wrote in the letter, “I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”
The BDS movement began to organize in 2005, modeled after the global movement to boycott South Africa during the Apartheid regime.
The extent of the BDS movement’s success has been in dispute. Efforts to enroll major companies, stockholders and unions in pulling their investments from Israel or from firms doing business with Israel failed to gain traction, and there has been little success in limiting the sale of Israeli products, especially in the United States.
The movement did succeed, however, in convincing some high-profile artists, including Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and Snoop Dogg, to drop Israel from their concert tour schedules. Other performing artists decided in past years to cancel planned shows in Israel without providing any explanation or tying their decision openly to the Israeli– Palestinian conflict.
Academic circles have not been immune to boycott attempts, though practical moves to withdraw from conferences in Israel or reject Israeli researchers were rare and occurred mostly in Europe. Hawking’s move could change that balance, adding celebrity power to the academic and scientific boycott in a way that could make intellectual interactions between Israelis and their colleagues around the world more difficult in years to come.
Itamar Rabinovich, former president of Tel Aviv University, called the academic boycott movement “an incremental process” that has been “gathering volume.” He noted that Hawking’s withdrawal and the attention it drew should be seen as “jumping to a new level” in the attempts to isolate Israeli academic work. “It resonates and it is being used by those who believe in it to give the movement more m omentum,” said Rabinovich, who also served in the past as Israel’s ambassador to Washington.
Rabinovich characterized Hawking’s decision as only a boost to the BDS movement, not a game changer. The impact of anti-Israeli sentiments in the academic world is already noticeable, he said, and could increase in the future. In humanities and social studies, he said, “if you want to get invited to an important conference or to spend a sabbatical in a leading university, you better be politically correct on issues relating to Israel, or else you won’t have a chance.”
In the scientific field, Rabinovich said, such pressure is not yet noticed but could emerge in coming years, making it more difficult for Israeli scientists to receive research grants or to find colleagues who will work together on projects supported by binational funds.
Activists monitoring the BDS movement, such as Segal, were puzzled by the route Hawking took to express his criticism of Israel. Refusing to take part in activities relating directly to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is more common in academic circles, he said, as is the boycott of goods from settlements, or refusing to visit individuals involved in Jewish life in the occupied territories. Hawking’s move was more extreme, Segal said, especially for a scientist who has not been vocal on these issues before.
“His decision was a kind of denial of Israel’s existence,” Segal said of the withdrawal from the Presidential Conference. “That’s what makes it all the more disturbing.”