Stephen Hawking boycotts Israeli event - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 10 May 2013

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking is at the centre of an international row after deciding to boycott an event in Israel.

Stephen Hawking boycotts Israeli event

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 10 May 2013

Darren Evans

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking is at the centre of an international row after deciding to boycott an event in Israel.

The scientist is refusing to attend the high-profile Presidential Conference in protest over Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

In a letter, Professor Hawking said that he had accepted an invitation to speak at the conference because he wanted to give his views on the political situation. But he said he decided to pull out of the event, due to be held in Jerusalem next month, after receiving many emails from Palestinian academics urging him to respect the boycott of the country being undertaken by some other academics around the world.

The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, later, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The political problems were further exacerbated by the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel took military control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians who live in those territories want an independent state of their own. The building of Israeli settlements – backed by the Israeli government – in what many on each side consider to be their homeland has proved very controversial.

In his letter, Professor Hawking writes: “I must withdraw from the conference. Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”

Organisers of the event have called Professor Hawking’s boycott “outrageous and improper” and many Israelis are upset. Daniel Taub, the Israeli ambassador to London said that taking part in such events would be a much better way to promote progress and peace in the region.

But Palestinians have welcomed Professor Hawking’s actions and said they “deeply appreciate” the scientist’s support.

Samia al-Botmeh, of Birzeit University in the West Bank, one of the occupied territories, said: “I think it is wonderful that he has acted on moral grounds.”

What is an academic boycott?

An academic boycott means that university lecturers, scholars and institutions such as universities and education organisations will not participate in any co-operation, collaboration or joint projects with the state in question (in this case, Israel).

This could mean that people do not give grants – money to allow people to carry out research – to those working in the country. It could be that, like Stephen Hawking, individuals decide not to attend conferences that are in, or that directly support, the country. It may also be that people working in the country are not invited to join research projects, give talks at conferences or serve as editors on academic journals.

Those participating in such boycotts hope that they will be able to pressure governments into changing their policies.

Questions for discussion or further research:

  • What is a “boycott”?
  • What do you think the academics hope to achieve through boycotting Israeli conferences? What message does this send?
  • What impact do you think Stephen Hawking’s involvement will have on the campaign?
  • Can you think of any other famous boycotts in history? Choose one and find out more about it.

Resources for you

Palestine-Israel introductory lesson

  • An overview that will introduce your students to the context of the Middle East conflict.

The Arab-Israeli conflict

  • Explore the background and context to this political situation through a PowerPoint presentation with tasks.

What makes protest effective?

  • Help your students to understand Stephen Hawking’s boycott with these resources on protesting.

Arab-Israeli introduction

  • This comprehensive booklet has pages of useful information and activities.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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