Israel's State Prosecutor to Top Court: Don't Let Science Minister Deny Neuroscientist Post Over Protesting Occupation

Science minister blocked Prof. Yael Amitai’s appointment to a scientific commission because she signed a petition supporting students who refused to serve in the West Bank

Israeli Minister of Science, Technology and Space Ofir Akunis, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 2018
Yitzhak Har, Knesset Spokesperson's Office

The State Prosecutor called on the High Court of Justice Tuesday to strike down Science Minister Ofir Akunis’ decision to block the appointment of an Israeli professor to an Israeli-German scientific commission.

Last July, Akunis blocked Prof. Yael Amitai’s appointment to the binational Israel-Germany science commission because in 2005 she signed a petition supporting students who refuse to serve in the West Bank. The Committee of University Heads, which is comprised of the heads of the eight research universities in Israel, filed a petition against Akunis' decision.

The state’s response to the petition said: “The minister’s decision transcends reasonability and is not legally defensible, and therefore under the circumstances there are grounds to issue a conditional injunction and subsequently a full injunction.” The response is signed by Anar Hellman of the State Prosecutor’s Office, who wrote that “Akunis’ decision could have a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of expression.”

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Neuroscientist Prof. Yael Amitai, 2018

Two weeks later, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit called on Akunis to reverse his decision and said that a signature on a petition 13 years earlier did not justify revoking the appointment. A letter sent by Deputy Attorney General Dina Silber said, “Under these circumstances, we will find it extremely difficult to defend the decision.” Before the letter was made public in the summer, Akunis announced that he would honor the attorney general’s decision. But he subsequently rebuffed Mandelblit’s recommendation.

In the High Court petition, the Committee of University Heads and Amitai argued that Akunis’ decision is “an unacceptable jumbling of boundaries between his hat as science minister who is supposed to make decisions with the good of his ministry and the country in mind, and his hat as a politician cynically trying to please his supporters. In these circumstances, with this decision the science minister exceeded his authority.”

Akunis responded on Facebook: “Contrary to the lies being spread by the Committee of University Heads, Professor Yael Amitai’s appointment was not approved due to her positions but due to her support for refusing to serve in the IDF, which is against the law.” The science minister also said that his decision to ignore the attorney general’s recommendation was based in part on interviews that Amitai gave after the story blew up in which she said she stands behind what she said in the past and that “she doesn’t represent the state.”

The state’s position, as explained in its response to the petition, is that the role Amitai was supposed to fill was “thoroughly scientific-professional, in a field that ostensibly does not involve any political or diplomatic considerations.” The letter also said that contrary to what Akunis has said, the petition that Amitai signed “does not include a call to disobey orders or break the law, but only an expression of support for students and lecturers who decided on their own not to serve in the territories.”