Stephen Hawking's decision to boycott the Israeli president's conference has gone viral. Over 100,000 Facebook shares of the Guardian report at last count. Whatever the subsequent fuss, Hawking's letter is unequivocal. His refusal was made because of requests from Palestinian academics.
Witness the speed with which the pro-Israel lobby seized on Cambridge University's initial false claim that he had withdrawn on health grounds to denounce the boycott movement, and their embarrassment when within a few hours the university shamefacedly corrected itself. Hawking also made it clear that if he had gone he would have used the occasion to criticise Israel's policies towards the Palestinians.
While journalists named him "the poster boy of the academic boycott" and supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement celebrated, Ha'aretz, the most progressive of the Israeli press, drew attention to the inflammatory language used by the conference organisers, who described themselves as "outraged" rather than that they "regretted" Hawking's decision.
That the world's most famous scientist had recognised the justice of the Palestinian cause is potentially a turning point for the BDS campaign. And that his stand was approved by a majority of two to one in the Guardian poll that followed his announcement shows just how far public opinion has turned against Israel's relentless land-grabbing and oppression.