Withholding Israel Prize From Leftist Scientist 'Cannot Legally Stand,' Attorney General Says

While some calls to boycott Israel can justify a withholding of the Israel Prize, however, in Prof. Oded Goldreich case these calls were 'isolated' and 'took place many years ago,' attorney general says

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit spekaing in Tel Aviv University, last month.
Israel's Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit spekaing in Tel Aviv University, last month.Credit: Hadas Parush
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The decision to deny Prof. Oded Goldreich the Israel Prize “exceeded the bounds of reasonability and cannot legally stand,” Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit told the High Court of Justice Thursday.

He was responding to a petition by two members of the prize jury against former Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who decided to overrule the jury’s decision to award Goldreich the prize in math and computer science.

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Gallant made his decision following a series of petitions and open letters that Goldreich, a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, had signed over the past 15 years relating to boycotts of Israel, the BDS movement and cooperation between Israeli academia and the defense establishment.

In his brief to the court, Mendelblit wrote that calling for boycotts against Israel could potentially be among the “extreme and exceptional cases” that might justify denying someone the prize. Nevertheless, he added, in Goldreich’s case, these were “isolated actions that, with one exception, all took place many years ago.”

Consequently, he said, they were not, “current, repeated and unequivocal enough” to be considered among those “extreme and exceptional cases.”

Goldreich’s lawyer, Michael Sfard, said that Mendelblit’s position “shouldn’t surprise anyone, and it’s a pity it took so long to say the self-evident. What Prof. Goldreich went through and is still going through is a McCarthyist process that shames Israel.”

Gallant, in a letter to Mendelblit last month justifying his decision, said that Goldreich’s contribution to Israel wasn’t sufficient to merit the prize, “because his contribution to the country through his research is offset by his energetic effort to get Israeli research institutions boycotted – constant, deliberate activity that has caused and continues to cause real harm to Israeli academia.”

He rejected Goldreich’s argument that supporting boycotts against Ariel University, which is located in the West Bank, is a legitimate political act. “Ariel University isn’t a political organization,” he wrote. “Its activities aren’t intended to achieve a political goal, but to promote research and science.”

“Its geographic location doesn’t disqualify it,” Gallant continued. “Anyone who calls for boycotting Ariel and even works for this end isn’t taking a political position, but deliberately and wittingly working to weaken Israeli academia.”

Two months ago, Gallant summoned Goldreich to a hearing on his boycott stance, but then backtracked due to Mendelblit’s criticism. Instead, he asked Goldreich to submit a written statement of his position. Goldreich announced that he would not cooperate with this process.

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