Israel's New Science Minister Okays Appointment of Anti-occupation Professor

The previous science minister had blocked the professor's appointment to the board of a joint Israeli-German committee because she expressed support for soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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File photo: Prof. Yael Amitai speaks after a High Court discussion on her appointment to a German-Israeli scientific panel, Jerusalem, January 21, 2019.
File photo: Prof. Yael Amitai speaks after a High Court discussion on her appointment to a German-Israeli scientific panel, Jerusalem, January 21, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

Israel’s new science minister, Kahol Lavan MK Izhar Shay, approved on Sunday the appointment of Prof. Yael Amitai to the board of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development, a joint scientific committee.

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Shay’s predecessor, MK Ofir Akunis (Likud), had blocked the appointment because Amitai had signed a petition in 2005 supporting Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied territories. Last year, the High Court asked Akunis to reconsider his rejection of Amitai as a board member of the foundation.

“As difficult as it is for me with the opinion expressed in the petition, I decided not to mix extraneous considerations with the professional work that Prof. Amitai was chosen to do,” Shay told the High Court of Justice. “In a democracy, we also fight for the right of others to express an opinion different from ours. Sometimes these opinions are irritating and infuriating,” he added. In response, Akunis called Shay’s decision “Unfortunate and wrong, legitimizing a refusal to serve and hurting the most basic values of Israeli society.”

“Prof. Amitai, who has not retracted her encouragement to refuse service, and whose statement does not represent Israel in this forum, is not worthy to represent the state in any international forum. It is unfortunate but not surprising that the new science minister did not insist on a such a basic and consensual principle,” Akunis added.

Izhar Shay in the Knesset, July 19, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Committee of University Heads said in response that they were pleased with Shay’s decision, and that Shay “put the good of the country ahead of narrow political considerations. Representatives of Israeli academia, who work in international foundations like Prof. Amitai, lead and strengthen Israel’s image in the world as a leader in groundbreaking scientific research free of any politicization – and that is in everyone’s interest.”

Last year, High Court Justices Neal Hendel, Alex Stein and George Kara unanimously rejected Akunis’ reasoning for blocking Amitai’s appointment – that Amitai’s claims constituted a criminal act – as unreasonable. The justices also said they were not entirely persuaded the political claims were the main reason behind Akunis’ actions.

However, Justices Hendel and Stein noted in the ruling that a call to refuse military service could constitute a reason to reject the appointment. Justice Stein added that if Akunis had argued that he was rejecting the appointment on the basis of unsuitability based on values, his decision might not have been struck down.

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