British physicist, Stephen Hawking, has backed an academic boycott of Israel as he announcing he would not attend a conference hosted by Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, the Guardian said on Wednesday.
In a letter sent to Peres, Professor Hawking said that he had decided to boycott the conference in protest at Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
The Guardian reported that Hawking "had accepted an invitation to headline the fifth annual president's conference, Facing Tomorrow, in June, which features major international personalities, attracts thousands of participants and this year will celebrate Peres's 90th birthday."
However, last week Hawking wrote a brief letter to Peres to say he had changed his mind, and in protest at Israeli treatment of Palestinians, he would be joining the British academic boycott of Israel.
The British Committee for the Universities of Palestine has celebrated Hawking's decision. According to the Guardian, a statement from the Committee said: "His [Hawking's] independent decision to respect the boycott is based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there".
Hawking's decision has been met with massive criticism and abuse from pro-Israel hardliners on social networking websites. According to the Guardian, commentators focused on his physical condition, while others accused him of anti-Semitism.
A number of other high profile British personalities including Elvis Costello, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Annie Lennox and Mike Leigh have all previously turned down invitations to visit Israel.
Hawking's decision has also angered Israeli officials and according to reports, the chairman of the presidential conference, Israel Maimon, branded it outrageous.
"The use of an academic boycott against Israel is outrageous and improper, particularly for those to whom the spirit of liberty is the basis of the human and academic mission," Maimon said. "Israel is a democracy in which everyone can express their opinion." He added.
Maimon also said: "whatever it may be, a boycott decision is incompatible with open democratic discourse."