Is Stephen Hawking's academic boycott of Israel ethical?

British physicist Stephen Hawking's decision last week to boycott a major international conference in Israel in June has been controversial. Two academics shared with The Current their contrasting views on whether such boycotts are ethical and effective.

2 academics share contrasting views on The Current

British physicist Stephen Hawking's decision last week to boycott a major international conference in Israel in June has stirred controversy. On The Current Wednesday, two academics shared their contrasting views on whether such boycotts are ethical and effective.

The University of Cambridge, where Hawking works, announced last Wednesday that Hawking said his decision not to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, hosted by President Shimon Peres and sponsored by Hebrew University, was "based on advice from Palestinian academics," who have been calling for other scientists to boycott contacts with Israeli academics.

The boycott is intended to support the Palestinian people and put pressure on Israel to "recognize the Palestinian people's right to self-determination" and end its occupation of Palestinian territories.

The University of Cambridge announced last week that British physicist Stephen Hawking, shown here at his desk in 2012, is boycotting the Israeli Presidential Conference in June. (Guillermo Granja/Vice Presidency of Ecuador/Reuters)

The Israeli Presidential Conference is not a scientific conference, but brings together world leaders and experts to discuss the world's problems and propose solutions. Israel Maimon, chair of the conference, said this year's attendees include Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair.

Maimon said Hawking's decision was "unjustifiable and wrong," and that the boycott was "outrageous and improper."

Lorraine Haricombe, dean of the University of Kansas and the co-author of Out of the Cold: Academic Boycotts and the Isolation of South Africa, spoke about her experience as an academic in South Africa during apartheid. She told Anna MariaTremonti, host of The Current that academic boycotts like the one imposed on South Africa can be symbolically powerful even if they no longer necessarily slow down research.

However, Michael Yudkin, professor of biochemistry at Kellogg College of Oxford University, told The Current he thinks there are only rare times and reasons for academic boycotts, and Hawking's situation is not one of them. Listen to the interview to hear his explanation.