Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis blocked the appointment of leading Israeli brain researcher Prof. Yael Amitai to an Israeli-German scientific committee, saying it was because a decade ago she had signed a petition in support of soldiers who refused to serve in the occupied West Bank.
A source involved in the field warned against the potential professional harm to Amitai, who heads the Interfaculty Brain Sciences School at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, adding that political intervention in Israeli research could cause damage and undermine Israel’s status in the eyes of foreign foundations.
The head of the Forum of University Heads and Tel Aviv University President Prof. Joseph Klafter has written to Akunis, warning him of the potential harm to Israeli interests. Akunis’ decision was first reported over the weekend by Israel Hayom.
Akunis’ media adviser, Ohad Yehezkeli, said the minister, “decided not to sign the recommendation to appoint Ms. Amitai as a representative to the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research, not because of her opinions but because in the past she had signed a petition encouraging draft refusal to the Israel Defense Forces.
The science minister believes it is improper that someone who encourages refusal should represent Israel in international forums.” Akunis also boasted of his decision in a Facebook post.
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After undergoing committee admissions procedures, Amitai began reviewing grant applications. A few hours later, she says, she received an urgent phone call from the Science Ministry telling her to stop reviewing material because her committee membership had not been approved.
A few days later, when she sought an answer so she could review the materials prior to the next committee meeting, she was told Akunis wasn’t willing to approve the appointment.
The Forum of University Heads has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene and approve Amitai’s appointment.
“This is an embarrassing situation for the State of Israel, in which the minister in charge of science will stop at no means to glorify himself among his political supporters, while sacrificing on the altar of politics the interests of the State of Israel and the status of Israeli academia as a whole, putting millions of euros that are supposed to reach Israeli researchers and scientists at risk,” the request said.
University officials who asked not to be identified accused Akunis of endangering Israel’s international academic standing. “This is further evidence of the government’s attempts to use its great power to bring politics into research and academia,” one official said.
“This was rejection of a worthy and just appointment of an expert and leading researcher in her field, the head of a university department, simply because of the minister’s desire to win a few political points within his party, without even getting to know or even speaking to the researcher at all. It’s shocking that for some short-term support in a party central committee, government ministers are prepared to act openly against the State of Israel’s national interests.”
Officials accused the minister of publicizing the story to score points on the right at the expense of further damage to the international status of Israeli academia.
The German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research said in response that the issue of appointing representatives was the exclusive authority of Akunis. The minister’s office did not respond to questions about the decision’s possible damage to Israeli academia.