Analysis

Proposed Ethics Code Is Bennett’s Attempt to Stifle Debate

The purpose is to curtail discussion of controversial issues, but nothing is more political than the pretense of being apolitical

Education Minister Naftali Bennett walks into the weekly cabinet meeting
Mark Israel Salem

The proposed code of ethics for Israeli universities that was drafted by Asa Kasher at the behest of Naftali Bennett is a bad document, and the education minister is using it to wicked purpose. It is an attack on academic freedom and on freedom of expression whose sole purpose is to silence. The open threat contained in its mandate to establish in every institution of higher learning a unit to “monitor and supervise political activity” is meant to whip of supporters of Bennett, the chairman of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party.

The question of the possible implementation of this delusional idea is secondary to fueling hatred for the universities and the chilling effect the code would have. In that respect, Bennett is a danger to Israeli education.

In the beginning of the document, Kasher, a Tel Aviv University philosopher professor, noted that he had met with students “who presented themselves as members of Im Tirtzu.” On Friday morning, that right-wing organization was quick to issue a victory statement welcoming the code, a statement suspiciously similar to Bennett’s media announcement in which he promised “to consider the impact of the code of ethics in the field” and not to “stop standing guard.”

The constant search for imaginary enemies requires that “revolutionary guards” — sleuths, students armed with the code’s main points and people who complaint about rebellious lecturers — recruit volunteers. Offenders will first be vilified in virtual public squares and then in actual ones. There will always be a media outlets that will happily publish videos recorded at great risk, and of course the student who runs Bennett’s Facebook page is available.

A similar symbiosis between right-wing groups and the Education Ministry was seen several months ago, after the latter banned appearances by representatives of Breaking the Silence in public schools. Due to either apathy or courtesy, Kasher, who has a monopoly on formulating ethical codes for the establishment, confers legitimacy on this Im Tirtzu-Bennett axis. (In drawing up the army’s ethics code, Kasher was a member of a committee, but Bennett gave him sole responsibility for the new mission.)

In his introduction, Kasher defined political activity as not only activity related directly to a party but also any activity “that constitutes direct support for a certain position in a recognized public controversy expressed on an ongoing basis in the Knesset or in public debate, clearly linked to a party in the Knesset or elsewhere.” All of the house philosopher’s other prohibitions and edicts can be derived from such a broad, all-embracing definition.

The rights of women and a range of other groups are a matter of “recognized public controversy.” That’s certainly the case regarding the rights of the Arab minority inside Israel and under Israeli military rule in the territories. There are also differences of opinion regarding economic, social and cultural disparities, matters that, goodness gracious, are even debated in the Knesset and among the public at large.

As a fundamental principle, academic criticism of a textbook that extols the Jewish aspects of Israel and minimizes the democratic ones treads too close to a danger zone. The dispute over demonstrations over the past several weeks outside the home of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit proves that even the right to demonstrate has become a matter of controversy. It’s good that Kasher hasn’t tried to limit talk about the weather (other, perhaps, than a discussion of air pollution in Haifa).

There is nothing more political than the pretense of being apolitical. The reality beyond the corridors of academia is one of constant conflict, which also permeates the classroom, among university students, in what they study and even in deciding to conferring university status to the institution of higher learning in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Everything is political, but as described by the late Prof. Zvi Lamm, there is a fundamental difference between political education and ideological education.

Political education attempts to develop the students’ abilities and their capacity to formulate their own political positions; while ideological education seeks to enlist them in embracing a single correct truth. That’s the difference between encouraging debate and silencing it. The demand that the universities toe the line with official criteria neuters academia of one of its fundamental aspects.

There is no point or justification in hiding reality unless the intention is to declare war on it. It’s hard to know if that’s what Kasher is aiming at, but it’s not certain if that’s even relevant. The fact is that he wrote a policy platform for Bennett that makes that possible. The prospect that the Council for Higher Education, some of whose members were appointed by Bennett, will rebel against a code of ethics that was dictated from above is not high. It also doesn’t appear likely that the academic institutions themselves will lead the opposition to it. Some have become accustomed — either willingly or due to cost-benefit considerations — to sitting on the fence.

The response must come from faculty members. Like the student council at Tel Aviv’s Ironi Dalet high school, which refused to meet with students from a religious high school that had demanded separate meetings for boys and girls, university faculty members must also declare that they will not cooperate with this effort by Bennett and those assisting him to impose a single way of thinking.