As one of many who deeply admires Hawking, it's distressing to hear of him participating in this. I've been reading many responses to his decision, but in some ways the most powerful is one by Carlo Strenger. I'll include the full text below, but I find it so compelling because Strenger is highly critical of Israel:
Let it first be said that I have been opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories for many years, and that I have voiced this opposition with all means at my disposal. I think that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank is indefensible morally, stupid politically and unwise strategically, and I will continue opposing it as long as I can.
This is no Israel apologist (he even accuses Israel of human rights violations in the West Bank). But, even with that, he finds this boycott, and Hawking's participation in it, indefensible:
Yes, I think that Israel is guilty of human right violations in the West Bank. But these violations are negligible compared to those perpetrated by any number of states ranging from Iran through Russia to China, to mention only a small number of examples. Iran hangs hundreds of homosexuals every year; China has been occupying Tibet for decades, and you know of the terrible destruction Russia has inflicted in Chechnya. I have not heard from you or your colleagues who support an academic boycott against Israel that they boycott any of these countries.
This gets to the heart of what angers so many defenders of Israel, myself included. It's not that I think that Israel is perfect, or that it's wrong to criticize Israel. But, Israel is often singled out in a way in which no other country would ever be.
How can a person claim that, for political reasons, they will not visit Israel, but then visit China, or any of the Islamicist regimes? Or, even America:
I’m still waiting for the British academic who says he won’t cooperate with American institutions as long as Guantanamo is open, or as long as the U.S. continues targeted assassinations.
What possible justification is there for that hypocrisy?
I hate blaming things on Anti-Semitism, as that's often a cheap, ad hominem attack meant to derail actual debate. But, I honestly can't think of a better explanation for why Israel is routinely criticized for doing what others do as a matter of course.
Israel is in a tragically untenable situation, where all of the choices are bad. It's possible (indeed, I would argue) that many of its choices have been the wrong ones. But to single Israel out in this way reeks of Anti-Semitism and hypocrisy. I would love to expect better, especially from a free-thinking genius.
Living up to the standards of human rights and the ideals of democracy in an imperfect world is difficult. Major thinkers like Philip Bobbitt and Michael Ignatieff have invested deep and comprehensive thought into the difficult topic of how to maintain the human rights standard in a world threatened by terrorism.
Professor Hawking, I would expect from a man of your intellectual stature to get involved in the difficult task of grappling with these questions. Taking the simple way out of singling out Israel by boycotting it academically does not behoove you intellectually or morally.