Israel’s Ethics Code for Professors Would Encourage More Academic Boycotts, Warns U.S. Union Head

Almost as if Naftali Bennett ‘wants the backlash and damage,’ says Randi Weingarten, president of America's largest teachers' union

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaking during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 2016.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The head of America’s largest teachers’ union, Randi Weingarten, told Haaretz Tuesday that Israel’s proposed ethics code for university professors will be “totally counterproductive” and more likely to trigger academic boycotts of the country.

A leading figure in the U.S. labor movement and progressive politics, American Federation of Teachers President Weingarten said she and her organization are strongly opposed to academic boycotts of Israel – which is one of the main reasons she is concerned about Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s attempts to change the rules in Israel’s universities, she said.

“It’s almost as if he wants the backlash and damage this would create. He’s doing it for mere political gain – but this is hurting Israel, both short-term and long-term,” she said.

Weingarten and her counterpart at the American Association of University Professors, Rudy Fichtenbaum, issued a statement Monday that “no educator – at any academic level, anywhere in the world – should be told by outside forces what to say or how to think. Such a proposal is the antithesis of critical thinking and democratic principles.”

Bennett’s proposed ethics code – written by Prof. Asa Kasher, who previously penned the Israeli army’s code of ethics – would limit Israeli professors’ freedom to discuss political and newsworthy events in the classroom, and has been seen as an attempt to curtail a left-wing discourse on campus.

The two U.S. education unions called on the Israeli government to reject Bennett’s initiative.

Weingarten said she made the statement because “there is a long-standing relationship between our union and Israeli society, including Israeli teacher and labor unions, Israeli schools, Israeli universities. From our perspective, this [ethics code] violates the declaration of independence of Israel, and runs against our own values and beliefs when it comes to the issue of academic freedom and the freedom of speech.”

Bennett had cited the AAUP’s own code in defending Kasher’s code for Israeli universities, and Bennett and Kasher had relied on the AAUP ethics code to create legitimacy for their version.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett
Ofer Vaknin

The education minister even tweeted a citation from the U.S. organization’s 1940 declaration, which states: “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

In their joint statement Monday, the AAUP and AFT said: “The ‘code of ethics’ that the government of Israel is considering for the country’s academic institutions is a threat not only to academic freedom in Israel, but to Israel’s standing as a democracy. We join with colleagues in Israel’s Association of University Heads, and with the National Union of Israeli Students, in condemning it.”

In her interview with Haaretz, Weingarten also emphasized that her organization is worried by a “global trend” of governments acting to limit academic freedom.

“You see what happened in Hungary, what’s happening in Russia. There are governments that rule with polarization and hate and ‘alternative facts,’ and all of this only makes universities so much more important for the cultivation of critical thinking.”

Yarden Skop contributed to this report.