"The only people harming academic freedom in Israel are the lecturers who call for a boycott of Israel," Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar told Israel Radio on Thursday.
Sa'ar's words came in response to a petition signed by 542 Israeli professors and academics calling on Sa'ar to not to carry through on his stated intention to take action against professors who support an academic boycott of Israel.
"If the higher education system in Israel wants to maintain a high quality it must also include opinions that are not acceptable to everyone, social and political criticism, and critical and even controversial research and instruction," the petition states.
Sa'ar said on Thursday that he would not backtrack on his plans and called the petition "hysterical" and "an attempt to silence contrary opinions."
The petitioners are "harming the institutions for which they teach and are funded by the citizens of Israel," Sa'ar said. "The question here is if there are absolutely no limits. Let's get rid of the double standards. Can everything be placed under the cover of academic freedom, including murder incitement?"
Petitioners include Haifa University rector Prof. Yossi Ben Artzi, Israel Prize laureates professors Benjamin Isaac and Yehoshua Kolodny, and former education minister Prof. Yuli Tamir, who is now president of Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.
The petition was initiated by the Forum for the Protection of Public Education.
Haaretz reported a few weeks ago that Sa'ar vowed to punish Israeli professors who back an academic boycott of Israel.
"When an Israeli academic preaches for academic boycott he crosses a red line," Sa'ar said at the time, adding that he discussed taking measures - mainly disciplinary - against these professors with the head of the Higher Education Council's Planning and Budgeting Committee.
Sa'ar added that he would also discuss such measures with the heads of the academic institutions directly.
The petition states: "We have different and varied opinions about solving the difficult problems facing Israel, but there is one thing we are agreed on - freedom of expression and academic freedom are the very lifeblood of the academic system."
"Israeli academia will suffer great damage if politicians dictate to it what is right and wrong to say, think, research and teach, and force it to adopt that kind of criteria for admitting, promoting or rejecting researchers and professors. Your statement about intending to use your authority to act against professors who support an academic boycott of Israel are causing just such damage," it says.
The petition also makes reference to the education minister's support of the recently distributed Im Tirzu movement report that claims political science teachings at Israeli universities are tainted with a "post-Zionist bias."
These reports, purporting to be scientific, have been distributed by "people pretending to care about Zionist values, but who are advancing under this guise a culture of gagging and intimidation on campuses," the petition says.
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