Stephen Hawking is known for a lot of things — theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, general relativity — but being an an activist for peace in the Middle East is hardly one of them. Not any more! On Tuesday, the Cambridge professor made a bold move when he joined a larger academic boycott of Israel in the name of Palestinian justice. Hawking had previously agreed to attend a conference hosted by Shimon Peres, one that marks the Israeli president's 90th birthday, but after being bombarded by messages from friends and fans decided against going. Although he explained his decision in a brief letter to Peres last week, Hawking hadn't made the news public until The Guardian reported on his decision Tuesday night.
Though private, Hawking was hardly vague about why he was backing out of the conference. The wheelchair-bound 71-year-old said that "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 news was reported quickly and soberly by the Israeli press, as Hawking joins a small but growing list of British celebrities who are taking a stand against Israel's treatment of Palestine.
This isn't the first time that Hawking's spoken out against Palestine, though. While he hardly ever chimes in on global politics, the physicist has actually been turning up the volume on his criticism of Israel. In 2011, he told Al Jazeera that Israel must engage with Hamas to put an end to the violence. "If Israel wants peace, it will have to talk to Hamas, like Britain did with the IRA. Hamas are the democratically elected leaders of the Palestinian people, and cannot be ignored," he said. "The situation is like that in South Africa before 1990. It cannot continue." This statement came after Hawking made a famous visit to the region, one that piqued his interest about the Palestine issue.
It appear that Hawking's not alone with his latest defiant statement. On Tuesday, Google tweaked the language on its homepage in the occupied Palestinian territories to read as "Palestine" rather than "Palestinian Territories." This small adjustment of verbiage had a big impact with Israeli authorities. Israel responded immediately with a power play of its own. "I think that the Google decision from the last few days is very, very problematic," deputy Israeli foreign minister, Zeev Elkin told Israel's Army Radio. "When a company like Google comes along and supports this line, it actually pushes peace further away, pushes away negotiations, and creates among the Palestinian leadership the illusion that in this manner they can achieve the result. Without direct negotiation with us, nothing will happen."