Israeli Education Minister: Barring Lecturers From Voicing Political Views Is Meant to Prevent Silencing

Proposed code of ethics warns academics to avoid making statements that their students may interpret as political

Education Minister Naftali Bennett heading to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 11, 2017.
Marc Israel Sellem/Pool

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday a proposed code of ethics that would bar lecturers from expressing political opinions at work is actually meant to combat people being silenced on campus.

The code of ethics for political activity in academic institutions drew criticism over the weekend from academics who say it would violate freedom of expression. The professor who drafted it at Bennett's behest defended it Sunday, saying the opposition stemmed from left-wing political considerations. 

Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Bennett said: "We are taking action to prevent silencing in academe, to prevent a situation where a student is getting hurt due to his political views and where a lecturer whose salary is paid by taxpayers calls for an [academic] boycott.”

“We’re in favor of academic freedom,” the education minister added. “We’re against promoting political agendas in academe.”

The code of ethics for political activity in academic institutions was drafted at Bennett’s behest by Asa Kasher, a philosophy and ethics professor at Tel Aviv University. Kasher also penned the Israeli army’s code of ethics.

The code, which includes guidelines for almost every aspect of academic life - from activities on campus and lectures to publications and staff promotion - would also would bar academics from expressing political opinions at work and forbid them from calling for an academic boycott of Israel.

The code states “that academic staff must be careful [to avoid] the possibility that their statements in class are naturally interpreted by students as political activity." The code would let students demand that lecturers explain statements that appear political. The academic would then have to either provide a “detailed and polite explanation” or apologize for violating the rules.

Among its far-reaching guidelines, the code states that faculty "will not allow themselves to veer off the syllabus and disciplines of an academic unit, not for political activity or similar preaching, beyond a momentary and minor lapse. A significant lapse () is untoward and could even constitute an abuse of authority ()"

Faculty should also be careful in using material in class "that includes clear political aspects that do not concern the course."

The code would also require every institution of higher education “to establish a unit that would monitor political activity” on campus. The unit could be an existing system, such as an ethics committee, or a new department managed by the institution’s academic staff. So far, institutions have not been required to reply to students’ complaints or inquiries on political activity, according to Kasher. The new units would correct that.

Outside of the classroom, the code permits faculty to participate in political activity, including protests and demonstrations, but bars such activity if taking part in it would be "naturally interpreted" as identifying the institution as supporting of the political cause.

In addition, faculty would not "participate in an academic boycott of Israel's institutions of higher education, and will also not join in calls to implement such a boycott or support it," the code states.

On Saturday, the umbrella organization of the heads of Israel’s universities blasted the code.

“The ethical code proposed by Prof. Asa Kasher undermines institutes of higher education’s freedom to decide their own codes of conduct for their academic staff, and thus infringes on academic freedom in the most serious and fundamental way,” it said, adding that this right was enshrined as part of Israeli law.

Kasher on Sunday dismissed criticism of the code, accusing the university heads of behaving like ultra-Orthodox rabbis. "It's the conservative instinct of a group that wants to preserve its power," he said in a speech at Bar-Ilan University.

He accused critics of the code of having it out for Bennett. "What's the problem with the code of ethics? Their problem is called Bennett. The moment Bennett signs off on something, the left is against it."

He addressed professors' calls for an academic boycott of Israel, saying that they are harmful but may not be of consequence. "On the day they cause damage, on the day that the European community decides to sever its ties with Israel and we are forced to fire assistants and lecturers, we'll call the police on them but we're not there yet. It's a far-off nightmare that I assume won't come true."