by Ray Fleming

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about new EU measures to identify and boycott goods and fruit originating in the Palestinian West Bank but being sold as Israeli. This week the boycotting issue is very different -- the decision by the eminent Cambridge University physicist Stephen Hawking to cancel his participation in a conference in Israel to be chaired by President Shimon Peres after having first said he would attend. He has withdrawn under some pressure from Palestinian and other organisations which boycott contact between Israeli and Palestinian academics because of what they claim are oppressive apartheid-like Israeli policies towards Palestinian educational institutions and students.

Academics of all disciplines normally believe in the importance of the open exchange of ideas regardless of their source and disparity but Israeli universities have increasingly found that this principle does not always apply in their case. Professor Israel Maimon, the chairman of the conference, said Hawking's withdrawal was “outrageous and improper”; he countered that if he had attended he would have said that “Israeli government policies are likely to lead to disaster.” One reason given for the boycott is that although Israel allows criticism of its attitudes to Palestinan academics it does not act on the specific complaints that are made about their treatment and that conferences of the kind now black-listed by Professor Hawking and others are used primarily for public relations.