Israeli academics threatened with ‘political opinion ban’

Minister’s proposal has already had a ‘chilling effect’, researchers say

June 12, 2017

Israeli researchers have warned of the “chilling effect” of a proposed ban on academics expressing political opinions.

A new code of ethical conduct, put forward by education minister Naftali Bennett, would prohibit academics from expressing their thoughts on politics during classes and supporting or taking part in any boycotts against Israeli institutions.

It has been reported that Mr Bennett does not currently have the support that he needs to make his plan a reality, but Sandy Kedar, who teaches in the law school at the University of Haifa, said that the proposal has “already had a chilling effect” because of the influence wielded by the government through its funding of higher education.

“I am worried about people without tenure,” he said, adding that they may be more likely to keep their heads down in order to avoid disciplinary action.

“It will not be possible to teach anything seriously with such an ethical code,” said Dr Kedar. The code is “part of a deeper process of silencing any kind of independent thought in Israel by the current ministry”, he added.

The code has been written by Asa Kasher, a professor of ethics at Tel Aviv University. The document has been widely criticised, including by Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin and the Committee of University Heads. The National Union of Israeli Students has threatened that students will go on strike if the code is put in place.

Before it can be implemented, the code needs to be approved by Israel’s Council for Higher Education, a 25-member-strong national governing body for universities on which Mr Bennett sits.

While Mr Bennett appears to lack a majority at the moment, Dr Kedar warned that the minister could gradually change the members of the council in order to get the code passed.

Mark Clarfield, head of the Medical School for International Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is also against the code. He said he understood that Professor Kasher was, in part, trying to deal with “the annoying and hypocritical but rare cases of Israeli professors supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions [movement]”. The BDS is a Palestinian-led campaign against Israel.

“[Mr] Bennett and [Professor] Kasher have some legitimate concerns but this code is, on balance, antidemocratic and too heavy-handed…This code is not the way. Open and honest debate is the answer here,” he said.

Professor Clarfield added that, should the code be enforced, the effect on teaching, learning and research at Israeli institutions would be “possibly chilling”. But it “would be largely ignored unless Israel lurched even further right”, he said.

“[Mr] Bennett thinks it forwards his ultra-nationalist agenda and will win him brownie points with his constituents,” Professor Clarfield added.

David Katz, director of the Lessing Institute for European History and Civilization at Tel Aviv University, said that in his 39 years of teaching at the institution, where he has been head of department twice, he has “never had any evidence of political interference” in classes.

“This is just an urban myth which is being used by the education minister to stifle legitimate dissent,” he added.

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