JERUSALEM — Stephen Hawking, the physicist and cosmologist, has pulled out of a high-profile conference scheduled to be held in June in order to support an academic boycott of Israel, conference organizers said Wednesday.
The academic and cultural boycott, organized by international activists to protest Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, is a heated and contentious issue; having Hawking join it could help the anti-Israel campaigners significantly.
“Never has a scientist of this stature boycotted Israel,’’ said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Organizers of the fifth annual Israeli Presidential Conference, held under the auspices of President Shimon Peres, said they had received a letter over the weekend from Hawking, a longtime Cambridge professor, announcing his decision.
Cambridge issued a statement indicating that Hawking had told the Israelis that he would not be attending ‘‘based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott,’’ according to the Associated Press.
Earlier, the university’s director of communications, Tim Holt, said by telephone that Hawking, 71, had withdrawn from the Israel trip for health reasons. The university later said it had been told otherwise by Hawking’s office.
Israel Maimon, the chairman of the conference, strongly criticized the professor’s decision, saying in a statement, ‘‘The academic boycott of Israel is in our view outrageous and improper, certainly for someone for whom the spirit of liberty lies at the basis of his human and academic mission.’’
Maimon, a lawyer and a former Israeli government Cabinet secretary, added: ‘‘Israel is a democracy in which all individuals are free to express their opinions, whatever they may be. The imposition of a boycott is incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.’’
There was no immediate comment from Peres’s office.
The Guardian newspaper first reported Hawking’s change of mind and cited a statement by the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, which The Guardian said was published with Hawking’s approval. It described the cancellation as ‘‘his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there.’’
Hawking last visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2006 at the invitation of the British Embassy in Tel Aviv.