Stephen Hawking joins a list of scientists who have boycotted Israeli institutions and events. Credit: Peter van den Berg/Photoshot

A decision by one of the world’s most famous physicists to withdraw from a conference due to be held in Israel next month has rekindled fierce debate in the United Kingdom over academic boycotts that are intended to protest against Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The decision, by Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge, UK, comes hot on the heels of an official ruling against a UK academic who had argued that, in part by repeatedly discussing a boycott of Israel, his trade union had created a hostile and anti-Semitic environment. Observers expect that the ruling will add fuel to this contentious fight.

Hawking, director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, was scheduled to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, an event run in partnership with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that will also celebrate the 90th birthday of Israeli President Shimon Peres. The gathering on 18–20 June will feature talks by scientists, other academics, artists and politicians on topics ranging from education and new media to political leadership.

Hawking wrote to the conference organizers on 3 May to say that he would not be attending so as to “respect the boycott” that some researchers have called for over the past decade. His decision was announced last week on the website of the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, a London-based group calling for academics to cut links to Israeli institutions, and triggered intense media attention.

The University of Cambridge initially said in a statement released last Wednesday that the physicist, who has the debilitating neurological condition motor-neuron disease, was withdrawing for health reasons. Later that day, it said that it had been mistaken and that Hawking’s decision was “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott”.

Conference organizer Israel Maimon, a lawyer, thinks that Hawking’s decision was wrong, and says that attempts to create an academic boycott of Israel are “outrageous and improper”.

Such efforts stretch back a decade in Britain. In 2002, more than 100 academics signed a letter published in The Guardian newspaper calling for a moratorium on European funding of, and contracts with, Israeli institutions, in protest at the “violent repression against the Palestinian people in the occupied territories”. Since then, various campaign groups and trade unions of teachers and lecturers have proposed boycott motions at their meetings, some of which have been approved.

Steven Rose, an emeritus professor of biology at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK, organized the 2002 moratorium call with his wife Hilary Rose, a sociologist and emeritus professor at the University of Bradford. He claims that in the past ten years the campaign has “gone on expanding”. Although there are no solid data on its effects, he says that moves by the Israeli government to counter it — such as 2011 legislation that outlaws boycott calls within Israel — are telling. “That shows it’s having an impact,” he says.

Other researchers question whether science in Israel has been significantly affected. The country collaborates with many institutions in Europe and the United States, and even with some academics in the occupied Palestinian territories. “I personally have not suffered from any boycott activity. I have relationships and collaborations with British scientists and scientists all over the world,” says Ruth Arnon, an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem, who has strongly criticized Hawking’s decision and the boycott movement. “There may have been some who have been affected, but I don’t know of any real effect.”

There may have been some who have been affected, but I don’t know of any real effect.

Hawking’s announcement is a “huge development” that may aid the boycott campaign in the United States, where it has traditionally not had much traction, says Jess Ghannam, a clinical psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and a member of the organizing committee of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. “This is a real turning point, in terms of bringing attention to this issue.”

Supporters of a boycott draw parallels between their movement and the campaigns for an academic boycott of South Africa that occurred during that country’s apartheid regime. But critics say that Israel is being unfairly singled out, arguing that institutions and conferences in other nations with questionable human-rights records are not being boycotted. Some say that the focus on Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism, a charge that Rose and others strongly deny.

In another recent event, a UK employment tribunal ruled on 22 March in favour of the University and College Union (UCU), a trade union for higher-education teachers, in a case brought against it in 2011. Ronnie Fraser, a mathematics teacher and a UCU member, had alleged “institutional anti-Semitism” that was in part due to repeated votes at the union’s annual meetings to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Although the union concluded in 2007, on the basis of legal advice, that a boycott would be unlawful, votes at subsequent meetings have approved related motions, such as discussing Palestinian calls for a boycott.

The tribunal dismissed Fraser’s complaint, calling it “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means”. Some academics fear that this could embolden the boycott movement. David Hirsh, a sociologist who researches anti-Semitism at Goldsmiths, University of London, and who helped to spearhead Britain’s anti-boycott Engage campaign, says that it gives a judicial stamp to the idea that such a boycott is not anti-Semitic. “That’s really damaging,” he says.

Meanwhile, Richard Axel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York, says that he will go ahead with plans to attend the Jerusalem meeting next month. “I do have serious concerns over the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. I’m deeply troubled by it,” he says. “But I do not feel an academic boycott of Israeli universities will in any significant way make progress to a resolution of that crisis.”