Attorney General Urges Science Minister to Unblock Appointment of Prominent Brain Scientist

The appointment was blocked over a 2005 petition supporting an Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank

Science Minister Ofir Akunis and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in April 2018.
Amit Shabi

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has called on Science Minister Ofir Akunis to reverse his decision not to recommend to an Israeli-German scientific committee a prominent brain scientist who in 2005 signed a petition supporting Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the West Bank. A letter sent by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber to Akunis acknowledges that the minister has the authority to consider the worldviews of candidates, but notes that the current appointment is a professional-scientific one and that the petition was signed 13 years ago, making such a consideration unjustifiable. Zilber adds that “under these circumstances it will be difficult for us to defend this decision.”

The letter was sent in response to an appeal by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, MK Mossi Raz and the Committee of University Heads of Israel on behalf of Prof. Yael Amitai. Zilber writes that as a result of Akunis’ decision, the grant approval committee of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development will have one fewer Israeli member. That, Zilber says, will “limit the ability to influence the funding organization’s activity.”

Akunis explained that he blocked Amitai’s appointment to the foundation’s board of governors not because of her political opinions but because calling for soldiers to refuse military service in the territories was “a red line.” At a Knesset committee meeting last week, Akunis said that he would honor any decision that Mendelblit made on this issue.

In her letter to Akunis, Zilber said Amitai’s signing of the petition “was a one-time act, 13 years ago, carried out together with 360 other academics in different universities. ... The petition did not call for an active call for refusal to serve or for breaking the law, but was an expression of support for students or teachers who had decided on their own not to serve in the occupied territories, as well as an expression of a willingness to support students facing financial, administrative or problems with their studies after making that decision.”

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Zilber added that “such an expression in any case is irrelevant to the activity of the foundation and the role intended for Prof. Amitai, since this role is purely professional and scientific. Her candidacy for the role was considered due to her unique and salient expertise in areas relevant to the organization’s activities.”

Prof. Joseph Klafter, the president of Tel Aviv University and the chair of the Committee of University Heads of Israel, welcomed Zilber’s letter, saying that he expects Akunis to honor the attorney general’s position and to immediately approve Amitai’s appointment.

The Israel National Academy of Sciences and Humanities published a statement decrying Akunis’ decision, signed by the academy’s council and past presidents.

“Involving political considerations in decisions regarding scientific research and scientific appointments is wrong in and of itself. This step harms Israeli science and Israel’s international standing,” the academy said.

In a letter to the president of the National Academy of Sciences, three German and two Israeli members of the foundation — Prof. Noam Eliaz and Prof. Yehuda Skornick — cautioned against mixing politics with the foundation’s work.