At least one good thing will come of Stephen Hawking’s declaration that he will not participate in the Facing Tomorrow conference to be hosted by President Shimon Peres: The annual meeting that brings together a wide range of guests from Israel and abroad – including prominent Palestinians Munib al-Masri and Inas Said – will not suffer from a lack of media exposure.

An initial exclusive report by Matthew Kalman on The Guardian’s website said that Hawking was boycotting the conference for ideological reasons, which almost immediately sparked tremendous Web traffic.

But a spokesman for Cambridge University denied the report and claimed that it was the renowned British physicist’s fragile health that prevented him from participating in the three-day conference that begins in Jerusalem on June 18.

And this made sense. Hawking, 71, has suffered from a debilitating motor neuron disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for most of his life. He is paralyzed, breathes through a ventilator, and communicates via a sophisticated computer.

Notwithstanding his disagreement with certain Israeli policies, Hawking has visited the Jewish state in the past – reportedly as many as four times. Since 1997, the computer that helps him communicate has been provided by Intel and is based on an Intel Core i7 processor. The core architecture was designed by a team in Israel that also designed the Pentium M mobile processor. Also, Hawking has academic ties with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Jacob Bekenstein, whose groundbreaking hypotheses regarding black holes and thermodynamics Hawking originally contested but later affirmed.

Having been in Israel, benefitted from Israeli technology and shared in academic give and take with a leading Israeli physicist, why on earth would Hawking suddenly decide to join the obscure British Committee for the Universities of Palestine in boycotting Israel? It made much more sense that Hawking’s debilitating health problems, which he has inspiringly and bravely overcome, were the reason for his no-show. Beyond wishing Hawking a speedy recovery, there was little to discuss.

It quickly became clear, however, that Kalman’s scoop, which had generated so much controversy, was right on target.

In an email exchange with the conference’s organizers, Hawking sent the following: “I accepted the invitation to the Presidential Conference with the intention that this would not only allow me to express my opinion on the prospects for a peace settlement but also because it would allow me to lecture on the West Bank.

However, I have received a number of emails from Palestinian academics. They are unanimous that I should respect the boycott. In view of this, I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”

Hawking has made his choice and he is, of course, entitled to do so. However, why has a man who has benefitted so from the sort of technological innovation that characterizes free, liberal-minded states such as Israel and who has engaged in intellectual cross-fertilization with Israeli academics decided to heed the requests of Palestinian academics? Hawking must know that a boycott, even one supposedly directed only at the settlements, ignores the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It ignores Palestinian incitement to violence, which goes on to this day. It ignores the broad support among Palestinians for Hamas and other terrorist groups that aspire to destroy Israel, even within pre-1967 lines. And it ignores the fact that even if Palestinians had their way and were allowed to create their own state, it is doubtful that the basic human rights of all Palestinians would be protected or that freedom of the press and of academia would be respected.

Not only does Hawking’s boycott stifle the free exchange of ideas and opinions so crucial to intellectual life, the BDS campaign strengthens the most radical elements by refraining from placing at least some of the blame for the conflict on Palestinian shoulders.

Hawking should reconsider his sudden change of mind regarding a visit to Israel.

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