Israeli Court Voids Ex-minister's Decision to Withhold Prestigious Prize From Left-wing Professor

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Israel's Education Minister Yoav Gallant in the Israel Prize ceremony, in February.
Israel's Education Minister Yoav Gallant in the Israel Prize ceremony, in February. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
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Israel's High Court of Justice on Thursday unanimously overturned the decision of Former Education Minister Yoav Gallant to withhold the Israel Prize in mathematics and computer science from Prof. Oded Goldreich.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton will be given the opportunity to decide whether to affirm Gallant's decision or not in accordance with the majority opinion issued by Justices Noam Sohlberg and Yael Willner. 

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Judge Yitzhak Amit issued a dissenting opinion saying that the prize should be given to Prof. Goldreich. 

Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit decided against defending Gallant’s position in a High Court of Justice petition against the decision filed by members of the Israel Prize committee. Finding that Gallant's decision "deviated from the range of reasonableness and was not legal," Mendelblit contended that the committee should be allowed to award Prof. Goldreich the prize. 

In June, Education Minister Yoav Gallant had informed Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit on Friday that he had finalized his decision to withhold the Israel Prize from Prof. Oded Goldreich, in one of his final moves in office, just before the new Israeli government was sworn in.

“Prof. Goldreich does not at this time meet the condition of a contribution to Israel, because his contribution through his research is offset by his energetic action to boycott Israeli research institutions – actions carried out consistently and intentionally and that have caused real damage and continue to damage Israeli academia,” Gallant wrote to Mendelblit.

Gallant rejected Goldreich’s position that his support of a boycott of an academic institution located in the Palestinian territories is a political act: “Ariel University [in the West Bank settlement of Ariel] is not a political body. Its activity is not intended to achieve a political goal, but rather to promote research and science,” Gallant wrote. “Its geographical location does not differentiate it from the academic institutions in Israel,” he added.

According to Gallant, “a person who calls for a boycott of Ariel University and takes action on this matter is not taking a political stand, but is acting intentionally and consciously to weaken Israeli academia.”

In response, Goldreich’s attorney Michael Sfard said: “A moment before what appears to be the end of his term in office, Gallant is trying to scrounge up a few headlines at Prof. Goldreich’s expense, and on the way he once again forgets that the Israel Prize is not a prize of the government of Israel. His letter expresses his McCarthyist approach and affixes his anti-democratic legacy. Attorney Gilad Barnea, who represents the Israel Prize committee, said that the decision was made without authority by a minister whose term is about to end. The decision disrespects the Israel Prize, and we are certain that the new education minister will make a different decision.”

In March, Gallant refused to accept the Israel Prize committee’s decision to grant the prize in mathematics and computer science to Goldreich because he had signed a petition that included a call to the European Union to stop cooperating with Ariel University. The members of the prize committee petitioned the High Court against Gallant’s decision, and Justices Isaac Amit, Noam Sohlberg and Yael Willner ruled unanimously that Gallant and Mendelblit must be given 30 days to examine whether the petition Goldreich signed breached the anti-boycott law. Goldreich said he stands by his signature on the petition, but he does not support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and accused Gallant of political persecution.

In May, Gallant summoned Goldreich to a hearing with regard to a number of petitions and public letters he has signed over the past 15 years regarding a boycott of Israel, the BDS movement and cooperation between Israeli academia and the defense establishment. Following criticism from the attorney general, Gallant withdrew his demand that Goldreich physically appear for a hearing, but asked him to respond to the accusations against him in writing. Goldreich responded that he would not cooperate with the process.

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