Former Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon is furious over the decision by eminent physicist Professor Stephen Hawking to withdraw from the upcoming fifth Presidential Conference taking place in Jerusalem in June. Maimon has been chairman of the conference since its inception.
Hawking's participation was announced with great fanfare last month, but since then, he has decided to join the academic boycott of Israel, and last week in a note to President Shimon Peres retracted his original decision to attend..
The story of Hawking's change of heart was broken by Matthew Kalman, the Jerusalem correspondent for the influential British newspaper The Guardian.
Hawking's decision was outrageous and improper said Maimon in a statement released by Debby Communications which handles the public relations for the conference. The imposition of academic boycotts against Israel is erroneous and offensive and incompatible with dialogue - certainly for someone for whom the spirit of liberty is the basis of his human and academic mission and who knows that Israel is a democracy in which every individual can express an opinion regardless of what it may be.
Maimon added that this year's conference which will also be a celebration of the 90th birthday of President Peres who conceived the Facing Tomorrow series, would have an all time high attendance of some 5,000 participants including some of the world's greatest brains, leaders of the largest global technological companies, internationally renowned academics, Nobel Prize laureates, celebrated artists and past and present heads of state including amongst others former US President Bill Clinton who will be awarded with the Presidential Medal of Distinction which was last year awarded to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and this year during his visit to Israel to President Barack Obama at a state dinner that Peres hosted in his honor. Clinton also attended Peres's 80th birthday party in Tel Aviv where he sang Imagine, in tribute to the man who always advises others not to be afraid to dream.
Other statesmen who have indicated their participation and their desire to join Peres in celebrating his entry into his ninth decade include former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has attended all of the Presidential Conferences to date and Prince Albert of Monaco.
Legendary singer Barbra Streisand will divide her time in Israel between conference participation in Jerusalem and her sold out concerts in Tel Aviv.
The story in The Guardian which carried the sub-heading 'Physicist pulls out of conference hosted by president Shimon Peres in protest at treatment of Palestinians' noted that Hawking, 71, the world-renowned theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, had accepted an invitation to headline the conference, but last week wrote a brief letter to Peres, saying that he had changed his mind.
The report also noted that Hawking is in poor health, .and that he had not announced his decision publicly. However he had approved a statement published by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine which described his withdrawal from the conference as "his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there".
According to The Guardian, in the four weeks since it had been announced that Hawking was participating in the conference, he had been bombarded with messages from Britain and abroad urging him to change his mind. He was subsequently persuaded on the advice of Palestinian colleagues.
While several British artists and academics have either cancelled or refused invitations to visit Israel, others have defied and even denounced the boycott. The Guardian quoted writer Ian McEwan, the 2011 recipient of the Jerusalem Prize who said: "If I only went to countries that I approve of, I probably would never get out of bed … It's not great if everyone stops talking."
Although Hawking's initial participation in the conference had captured headlines in Israel, it is doubtful that there would have been any public response to his cancellation if other media outlets had not picked up on The Guardian report. All that would have happened would have been the quiet, seamless removal of Hawking's name from the list of speakers, and only those people who were particularly interested in him would have noticed.
Hawking has been to Israel before. In fact he has visited Israel on four occasions, the most recent of which was in 2006, when he lectured publicly at Israeli and Palestinian universities, and expressed his excitement at meeting Israeli and Palestinian scientists.
He began to take a hard line attitude towards Israel in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, and in an interview with Al Jazeera denounced Israel's retaliation to rocket fire from Gaza, declaring it to be out of proportion and comparing the situation to that of South Africa prior to 1990.