The lessons of academic freedom
Academic freedom was so embarrassingly violated by Netanyahu's move that two professors chose to censure him on the matter in front of Merkel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel devoted a meeting during last week's summit in Berlin to the topic of academic freedom. The leaders were joined by academics from both countries - sans Prof. Rivka Feldhay of Tel Aviv University, who was barred by Netanyahu from attending.
Feldhay is by no means Netanyahu's ideological twin, and her views are probably not similar to those of other academics who attended the meeting, but that is precisely the point of academic freedom. Netanyahu himself is the son of an academic who for most of his life claimed he was discriminated against because of his political opinions, leading him to foreign academic pastures for many years. Netanyahu, who is "the first to understand" every phenomenon under the sun, is supposed to support the existence of dissenting voices - a precondition of free debate and democracy.
Nevertheless, someone made it their business to reveal that several years ago Prof. Feldhay signed a petition calling on Israel Defense Forces soldiers to refuse to serve in the occupied territories. Conscientious objection is an important issue in postwar Germany, but Israel's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror - who for some reason is also apparently in charge of academic freedom, as is common in countries not fully committed to democracy - announced that Feldhay would not be allowed to participate in the meeting. Perhaps Amidror thought he was still fulfilling his last military post as commander of the National Security College, where lecturers' opinions of the IDF might influence the decision to invite them to speak to the military students.
Personally and politically, Netanyahu can, and maybe even must, disapprove of conscientious objection, and one must hope he extends this principle to right-wing circles who called on IDF soldiers to refuse to evacuate settlements. But the meeting with Merkel had nothing to do with conscientious objection, but rather with the notion of academic freedom, which was so embarrassingly violated by Netanyahu's move that two professors chose to censure him on the matter in front of Merkel. Hoping to highlight Israel's academic freedom, Netanyahu did the precise opposite. It might gain him applause among his supporters, but it significantly damaged Israel's image internationally.