Explained: Israeli Education Minister's Plan to Bar Professors From Voicing Their Views

A closer look at Naftali Bennett's proposed ethical code that critics say undermines academic freedom

Students at an Israeli university.
Emil Salman

The Israeli academy has responded with outrage to the publication of a new ethical code that would bar its members from expressing their views and beliefs in the classroom.

The document was formulated by Asa Kasher, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Tel Aviv University, at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party. Its contents were published in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday. The new ethical code is still pending the approval of the Council for Higher Education, which operates under the auspices of the Education Ministry.

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In a strongly worded statement issued over the weekend, the umbrella organization of the heads of Israeli universities denounced the initiative, saying that it “infringes on academic freedom in the most serious and fundamental way.” The Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think-tank based in Jerusalem, warned that “such an ethical code tramples freedom of expression with a heavy foot.”

The Education Ministry insists, in its defense, that its intent was not to target left-wing professors, many of whom are extremely vocal critics of the government. Rather, it says, the purpose of this new code of ethics is to keep all politics out of the classroom – whether left or right. In formulating his recommendations, however, Kasher made no secret of the fact that he consulted with members of the right-wing organization Im Tirtzu. Neither is it a secret that Israel’s right-wing government views the country’s universities as bastions of left-wing opposition, and therefore, a threat.

The proposed ethics code should be seen, therefore, within the context of recent government initiatives aimed at stifling opposition to its policies. These include a funding crackdown on left-wing human rights organizations and a travel ban that would bar entry into Israeli of foreign visitors who publicly support a boycott of the country or even a restricted boycott of West Bank settlements.

So what does the new ethical code actually say? 

The 13-page document, officially presented to Bennett a little more than a month ago, spans a wide range of topics, including academic appointments, conferences, publications and behavior toward students. The main cause for concern, however, is its proposed ban on “political activity” in the classroom and how this term is defined. “Political activity,” according to the document, means not only expressing an opinion about a specific political party or candidate, but also, espousing “a particular point of view in a recognized public dispute.” This very broad interpretation of political activity would effectively prevent Israeli academics from voicing an opinion on any issue subject to public controversy, whether it be evolution, global warming, religious freedom, or free market economics. As the Israel Democracy Institute noted in its statement, published on Sunday: “It would cause professors to self-censor and create an atmosphere for pursuing and harassing professors.”

Don’t Israeli universities already have codes of ethics in force? 

Indeed, they do. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, for example, adopted its own “Academic Code of Ethics” in 2007, the University of Haifa is in the process of drafting one, while other universities and institutes of higher education include ethical standards in their constitutions and bylaws. This is the first time that the state has attempted to impose its own external code of ethics on the Israeli academy. If approved, it would earn Israel a dubious distinction, since in no other country in the Western world are universities bound by a state-imposed code of ethics – certainly not one that aims to hamper freedom of expression.

How does the new proposed code of ethics differ from those already in force? 

If we take the code of ethics adopted by Ben-Gurion University as an example, it also discourages “political activity” in the classroom but defines the term much more narrowly. “Our definition of political activity is restricted to partisan politics and propaganda,” says Isaac (Yanni) Nevo, a professor of philosophy who helped draft the code of ethics at Ben-Gurion University. “The idea is that a professor cannot walk into a classroom and tell his students to vote for Netanyahu, ask them to sign a petition or urge them to come to a demonstration. These are activities that most people would agree cross the lines.” But in contrast to the document drafted by Kasher, he notes, the Ben-Gurion University code of ethics does not impose any restrictions on expressing views or beliefs. “It is assumed that professors teach what they believe to be the truth, and if that puts them in conflict with what is politically acceptable, it’s even a good thing,” he says.

The Association of American University Professors also has its own a code of ethics. So why shouldn’t Israel? 

In his recommendations, Kasher does cite the AAUP “Statement on Professional Ethics” as a source of inspiration. There is one major difference though: The AAUP document was drawn up voluntarily by members of the organization and not imposed on it by the U.S. Department of Education. Another important distinction, as Nevo notes, is that “the AAUP document aims to promote academic freedom, not restrict it.”

Will universities be able to fire professors who violate the ethical code, once it is approved? 

An ethical code presents just guidelines and is not legally binding, so in theory, most Israeli professors, especially tenured ones, have nothing to fear. According to Kasher’s recommendations, students who believe their professors have violated the ethical code can file complaints with special units at their respective universities that address such issues. If these complaints prove justified, disciplinary action may be taken. But according to the umbrella organization of heads of Israeli universities, the code of ethics cannot be enforced because it would violate the academic freedom and independence to which they are entitled by law. Nevo, however, is not so sure. “We might find ourselves in a situation whereby the Council of Higher Education is able to create the impression among the public that this is a binding document,” he warns, “and that would put enormous pressure on lecturers, particularly those who are not tenured.”

Will this provide supporters of the international Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement with further ammunition against Israel?

In recent years, various international academic associations have considered and voted on boycott measures aimed at Israeli institutions of higher education. Opponents of these boycott campaigns often argue that Israeli academics represent a major opposition force in the country and therefore should not be targeted but supported. Nevo believes that this latest initiative will strengthen those on the pro-boycott side. “What many academics abroad will conclude is that the last vestiges of academic freedom in Israel have been removed,” he says, “and we are nothing more than vessels in the hands of the government.”