Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking has pulled out of a prestigious Israeli conference, giving conflicting reasons on Wednesday for his absence.
A spokesman for Cambridge University, where 71-year-old Hawking is Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, originally suggested that the wheelchair-bound scientist was snubbing the annual event as part of an academic boycott to protest Israel’s policy toward Palestinians.
But the university later retracted the statement, saying Hawking had withdrawn from the Israeli Presidential Conference, organized by President Shimon Peres, because of ill health.
“Professor Hawking will not be attending the conference in Israel in June for health reasons. His doctors have advised against him flying,” a university spokesman said in an email.
Earlier, the same spokesman reported that Hawking had approved a statement posted by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, which said he had decided to boycott the event “based upon his knowledge of Palestine.”
Asked about the change, the spokesman said: “I was mistaken. It was not approved by Professor Hawking.”
Hawking, who has won international recognition for his work on black holes in space, had been flagged as a major speaker at the conference, alongside former president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
His name was quietly withdrawn from the list of participants this week and the organizers, said to be furious about it, on Wednesday called his withdrawal “unjustifiable and wrong,” making clear they had been told it was a political protest and not a health issue.
“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,” conference chairman Israel Maimon said in a statement.
According to British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the story, in the four weeks since Hawking’s participation in the conference, he had been bombarded with messages from Britain and abroad urging him to change his mind, and was subsequently persuaded on the advice of Palestinian colleagues.