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"The only ones hurting academic freedom in Israel are those lecturers calling for an academic boycott of Israel," Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar told Israel Radio yesterday morning. The remark was in response to a petition signed by 542 university students and faculty members demanding that he withdraw a declared intention to act against university teachers who support a boycott.

"If a person calls for an academic boycott of the institution in which he teaches, the institution should address this," Sa'ar said. "I stand behind what I said and won't retract it. The response is largely hysterical, and an attempt to silence other opinions."

Continuing, Sa'ar said: "There is no intention here to stifle critical opinion, criticism of the government or of various political positions. The question is whether there any boundaries. If a teacher talks about genocide, is that protected speech?"

Prof. Yossi Ben-Artzi, rector of the University of Haifa and one of the organizers of the petition, told Haaretz yesterday that while he thought the calls by Israeli academics in support of an academic boycott deserved to be denounced and disputed, there was no disputing their right to express their opinion. He said Sa'ar forgot the Voltaire saying, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

The petition said: "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 these kinds of criteria for accepting, 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."

Last night Sa'ar said that he had asked senior academic figures, including the head of the powerful Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, to ask the universities how they were dealing with faculty members who support a boycott, including whether they had procedures for addressing such situations.

In reference to the petition's claim that he had endorsed a report by the campus organization Im Tirtzu on anti-Zionist teachings in Israeli universities, Sa'ar said he had not read the report, adding that he understood it to be a nonscientific report. "I did say it provokes discussion of an important issue that should be discussed publicly - is academia monolithic or not."