Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had contended for years that academic institutions in Israel are afflicted with left-wing bias, bound by uniform thinking that produces students who think as they do. Even during his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu promised to change the situation. Upon his return to the post of prime minister, his government, with the assistance of a supporting cast of outside organizations such as Im Tirtzu and the Institute for Zionist Strategies, launched a media campaign to suppress those whom Netanyahu describes as "a radical core in our midst." The demand has been for university lecturers and researchers to restrain their freedom of expression, purportedly in the name of pluralism, to be reflected in promoting academics with right-wing views and pushing aside supporters of the left in university social science departments.
Gideon Sa'ar, the education minister and chairman of the Council for Higher Education, fired the latest salvo in the offensive against academia on Monday. At a session of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee on the "exclusion of Zionist views in academia," Sa'ar spoke about the development of a new code of ethics for institutions of higher education that is supposed to ensure a range of opinion in study materials and require that support for the academic boycott of Israel by university lecturers would be construed as a violation of academic freedom.
From the spirit of the debate, it appears that the code of ethics is meant to force academic institutions to teach "Zionist" viewpoints according to Netanyahu's and Im Tirtzu's interpretation and restrain the freedom of researchers and lecturers to criticize government policy. Sa'ar's proposal will probably be enforced under the threat of withholding government funding from departments that don't toe the line.
The university heads are correct in bitterly criticizing the education minister's new idea and sounding the alarm against destroying higher education if a government agency headed by a politician sets the limits of freedom of expression enjoyed by lecturers and researchers.
Instead of defending academia from forces seeking to eliminate it, Sa'ar is acting like a petty commissar seeking to have academic discourse conform to the Likud party platform. Sa'ar's effort to rein in "non-Zionist views" realizes the expectations of the prime minister, who wants to cleanse academia of its "radical core" and transform it into an advocacy branch of the government. Anyone for whom the future of higher education and science in Israel are important must protest Sa'ar's code of ethics.
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