LONDON (AP) — Physicist Stephen Hawking has dropped plans to attend a major conference in Israel in June, prompting criticism Wednesday from Israeli officials who believe he has joined a boycott organized to protest Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
The world-famous scientist — who suffers from a disease that has left him largely immobilized — had earlier agreed to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, hosted by President Shimon Peres, in late June, but has now changed his mind.
Tim Holt, media director at the University of Cambridge, said Hawking's decision was based strictly on health concerns.
"For health reasons, his doctors said he should not be flying at the moment so he's decided not to attend," Holt said. "He is 71 years old. He's fine, but he has to be sensible about what he can do."
A University of Cambridge statement released earlier Wednesday cited "personal reasons" for his decision.
Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He receives around-the-clock care, can only communicate by twitching his cheek, and relies on a computer mounted to his wheelchair to convey his thoughts in a distinctive robotic monotone.
In Israel, however, Hawking's decision was viewed as an indication of support for a boycott. Organizers said an email from Hawking cited the boycott as a reason not to attend.
Conference chairman Israel Maimon said Hawking's decision was "unjustifiable and wrong."
"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," Maimon said, calling the imposition of a boycott incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.
He noted that former world leaders including Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair plan to attend the conference.
The boycott campaign is led by Palestinians, Israeli leftists and other supporters who oppose Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and are attuned to the power of celebrity in this age.
It has had some success, deterring a string of famous entertainers from performing in Israel. Elvis Costello and the Pixies canceled performances, as did the British dance band Klaxon and the Gorillaz Sound System. Israel has also faced occasional boycotts of its academics, unions and some commercial products.
Hawking's decision was hailed by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine as support for its goal of severing academics' connections with the Jewish state.
"This is his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there," the committee said on its website.
University spokesman Holt said that Hawking "did not specifically approve" the committee's statement. Holt said he had asked the committee to remove the posting.
The committee did not respond to requests for comment.
Heller reported from Jerusalem.