There was much relief when, earlier today, a spokesman for Cambridge University in England released a statement denying that Stephen Hawking, the renowned British physicist, had invoked the academic boycott of Israel as the reason for his decision to withdraw from the “Facing Tomorrow” conference, which will be hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem in June.

As it turns out, Cambridge spoke too soon. Tim Holt, the spokesman who said that Hawking had backed out for health reasons, was compelled to issue the following clarification:

“We have now received confirmation from Professor Hawking’s office that a letter was sent on Friday to the Israeli President’s office regarding his decision not to attend the Presidential Conference, based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.

“We had understood previously that his decision was based purely on health grounds having been advised by doctors not to fly.”

The initial doubt over the whether the Hawking story was true is easy to understand. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has a track record of lying about its successes. Over the last few years, many of their claims about individuals and companies endorsing the boycott–including PGGM, the largest pension fund in the Netherlands, Hampshire College, Harvard University, the academic retirement fund TIAA-CREF, and telecoms giant Motorola–were quickly exposed as false. Additionally, the signal failure of the movement’s academic arm to enlist any prominent, respected scholar to its cause naturally sowed doubts about Hawking’s apparent endorsement. Finally, it seemed difficult to believe that Hawking, whose own achievements owe a great deal to the Israeli physicist Jacob Bekenstein, would approve something as crude and as ugly as a boycott.

What, exactly, has Hawking signed up to? At the outset, the idea that his decision is related to discomfort with Israel’s settlement policies should be dispensed with. The Palestinian Call for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is refreshingly clear that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is simply one element of a much more comprehensive assault upon Israel’s legitimacy:

…Israel’s colonial oppression of the Palestinian people, which is based on Zionist ideology, comprises the following:

  • Denial of its responsibility for the Nakba — in particular the waves of ethnic cleansing and dispossession that created the Palestinian refugee problem — and therefore refusal to accept the inalienable rights of the refugees and displaced stipulated in and protected by international law;
  • Military occupation and colonization of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza since 1967, in violation of international law and UN resolutions;
  • The entrenched system of racial discrimination and segregation against the Palestinian citizens of Israel, which resembles the defunct apartheid system in South Africa.

In plain speaking, then, the ultimate aim of the boycott movement is to dismantle the State of Israel in its entirety, not simply to secure its withdrawal from disputed territories. We are not talking here about, in the words of the Associated Press, a strategy “designed to bring pressure on the Israeli government,” but the wholesale rejection of anything or anyone associated with Israel. It is for this reason, and rightly, that the boycott movement can credibly be described as anti-Semitic, for it seeks to deny only the Jewish people the right of self-determination, and viciously caricatures the Jewish state as a carbon copy of the old apartheid regime in South Africa.

I make this point in anticipation of the coming tussle over whether Stephen Hawking is or isn’t anti-Semitic. His supporters will certainly portray him as a fearless opponent of colonialism, a man who nobly condemned the war that ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq as a war crime, and who is now being “smeared”–the favored word of anti-Zionists everywhere–as a Jew-hater. Detractors will doubtless point out that Hawking’s thinking is riddled with moral idiocy (why pick on Israel while remaining silent on serial human rights violators like North Korea and Iran?) and hypocrisy (major advances in combating Lou Gehrig’s disease, which Hawking has suffered from for more than 40 years, have been made in Israel).

The overriding consideration is that, regardless of Hawking’s personal attitudes toward Jews–which no one bar his closest confidantes could credibly claim knowledge of–he has associated himself with a movement that seeks to eliminate, in the form of the State of Israel, the one guarantee Jews have against a repeat of the genocidal persecutions of the last century. That same consideration should govern any assessment of his decision to withdraw from the Jerusalem conference.

It’s also worth noting that while Hawking’s trophy cabinet doesn’t contain a Nobel Prize, it does include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by President Obama in 2009. One might reasonably ask whether such an award was appropriate, given Hawking’s affinity with political movements that are antithetical to the very idea of freedom. And one might also ask whether Hawking, for the sake of consistency, will now return the medal, in protest against Obama’s decision to bestow the same honor, last year, upon none other than Shimon Peres.