I highly admire Hawking as a physicist and author, but I consider his cancellation - if indeed motivated by boycott - to be misguided and downright wrong.
I believe that the call for academic or economic boycott of Israel is morally reprehensible and intellectually indefensible. This call is based on a moral double standard and blind ignorance. It is deeply upsetting when supported by people who are presumably dedicated to the idea of unfettered access to knowledge and research, free speech and democracy.
Many yeas ago, I supported the idea of selective divestment from firms that profit from Israel's occupation, believing this has ethical roots in Judaism (do not profit from ill-gotten gains) and would perhaps nudge Israeli politicians to accept the Saudi Peace Initiative. But in 2006 I changed my mind, and as I explained in my Jerusalem Post op-ed, I think the so-called "BDS strategy" (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is wrong and harmful.
I do oppose certain Israeli policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank and violations of basic human rights. But whatever mistakes the Israeli governments have made in their treatment of Palestinians, they pale in comparison to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russian to China, to name a few notorious examples. Would Professor Hawking boycott conferences in those countries too?! And while we're at it, executions (whether by drones or judicially-ordered) have been decried as a basic violation of human rights and are considered by the overwhelming majority of democratic countries a barbaric and inhumane practice -- shouldn't Professor Hawking ban conferences in the United States too since it is the No. 4 in the world in executions per year?!
Professor Hawking earned critical acclaim and became my hero with his first book, A Brief History of Time, in which he explored with amazing clarity such profound questions as direction of time, Einstein's general theory of relativity and the quest for a Grand Unified Theory. It was heartwarming to see how he overcame the terrible conditions of Lou Gehrig's Disease to become a world-renowned professor and author. I also felt a personal connection: In his book, he praised Professor Jacob Bekenstein, a theoretical physicist specializing in black holes who was a colleague of my father Elhanan z"l at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and a close friend of our family.
It therefore upsets me that such a personal hero and bright intellectual justifies this double standard and singling out of Israel. How can he ignore that Israel has been, from its inception, under constant attack by countries and terror organizations who wanted to destroy it?
While Israeli governments have made mistakes in balancing between security concerns and human rights, there is no justification whatsoever for a boycott - which, in essence, is a bashing of the entire Israeli society. Rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, Jews established - against all odds - a thriving democracy. It is not perfect, but perfect countries exist only in the minds of bleeding-heart liberals incapable of acknowledging reality. It is perfectly legitimate to oppose the ill-conceived and illegal (under international law) settlements in the West Bank but one cannot deny that Israel is a country of free speech, equality, an independent judiciary and rule of law.
Rather than kowtow to the vociferous fringe radicals who call for boycotts and sanctions, Professor Hawking would do well to affect positive change by visiting and teaching at Israeli and Palestinian academic institutions (as he has done in the past), promoting cooperation and dialogue.
Professor Hawkin made headlines in his past 4 visits and contributed immensely to promoting science and research in Israel, so we don't really know what got into him this time. The real villains in this case are the people behind this dubious "BDS" movement who swayed him in the wrong direction. We should really avoid using that abbreviation, because even using it gives them a sense of legitimacy.
If I had the honor of meeting Professor Hawkin, I would implore him to reconsider, and join the many dignitaries and scientists who will be attending the President's Conference in Israel, celebrating the 90th birthday(!) of Israeli President Shimon Peres. There, he could announce his support for my version of "BDS" -- Bi-lateral Doubling of Support -- support to all Israeli, Palestinian and Arab institutions opposing violence and devoted to freedom and democracy.