High Court Orders State to Give Left-wing Professor Withheld Israel Prize

The prize jury’s decision to award Prof. Oded Goldreich the prize was initially overturned by then-Education Minister Yoav Gallant over calls against cooperation with a university in a West Bank settlement

Prof. Oded Goldreich.
Prof. Oded Goldreich.Credit: Moti Milrod

Prof. Oded Goldreich must be awarded last year’s Israel Prize in math and computer science, the High Court of Justice ruled Tuesday. The prize has been withheld from him over his support for a petition calling on the European Union to refrain from collaboration with an academic institution located in an Israeli settlement.

The 2-1 ruling was handed down by Justices Isaac Amit and Yael Willner, with Justice Noam Sohlberg dissenting.

The prize jury’s decision to award Goldreich the prize was initially overturned by then-Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who said that someone who supports boycotting an Israeli institution shouldn’t be awarded a state prize. The court overturned that decision in August, but since Yifat Shasha-Biton had replaced him as education minister by then, the justices declined to issue a definitive ruling, instead asking Shasha-Biton to decide.

In November, Shasha-Biton decided that she agreed with Gallant. Now, the court has overturned that decision as well and ordered her to approve the prize jury’s decision

“The High Court can rule when an issue reaches it,” Shasha-Biton said in response. “But once it decided to refer the decision to me, it would have been proper to honor it. A man who calls for boycotting an Israeli academic institution doesn’t deserve a state prize from Israel, no matter what his achievements are and no matter what his political views are. I regret the court’s decision, but I will honor it.”

Goldreich, a computer scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, had signed a petition calling for the European Union to refrain from any scientific or industrial cooperation with Ariel, which is located in the West Bank.

Willner, who wrote the majority ruling, accepted former Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s view that a cabinet minister shouldn’t intervene in the decisions of a prize jury comprised of professionals. Moreover, she noted, the government itself recently signed a scientific cooperation agreement with the EU even though it explicitly excludes institutions located in the settlements.

The Israel Prize regulations say it should be awarded based on the winner’s professional expertise, Willner wrote, so a nominee’s statements on other subjects should be considered relevant “only in the most extreme and exceptional cases.” Moreover, many previous award winners have also said things that greatly offended parts of the public due to their “ethnic origins, religious views or sexual orientation,” yet “despite these nominees’ harsh statements, successive education ministers haven’t seen fit to deny them the Israel Prize.”

Goldreich’s support for boycotting Ariel University was not one of those “rare and extreme” cases that would justify vetoing the prize jury’s decision, she concluded, “because the policy the petition asked the European Union to implement is explicitly enshrined in the cooperation agreement the government signed.” Moreover, she added, Shasha-Biton was acting hypocritically by denying Goldreich the prize when she was part of the very government that signed that agreement.

“This incoherence, combined with the minister’s disregard in her decision of the cabinet’s signing of the cooperation agreement, are the basis for concluding that the decision was flawed enough to justify judicial intervention,” she wrote.

Amit, in his concurrence, wrote that if the winner depends on the views of the minister in power at the time, that’s “a surefire recipe for politicizing the prize.” He added that academic excellence “doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with view that fit the public consensus,” and therefore, denying the prize to someone because of “sporadic remarks” would be “an invitation to monitoring, surveilling and persecuting Israeli academics,” which in turn could seriously harm the country’s academic achievements “and, in the long term, could even harm its national resilience.”

Sohlberg, in his dissent, said there were no grounds for the court to intervene in Shasha-Biton’s decision, because it was within her legal authority to make it and her considerations were relevant rather than arbitrary or discriminatory.

“The right to have the last word was given to the education minister, and it’s not the court’s job to make ‘minor improvements,’” he wrote. And even if the justices truly believe that a minister made the wrong decision, “the court shouldn’t fill her shoes and replace her judgment with its own.”

He also stressed that had Shasha-Biton been taken to court because she decided to grant Goldreich the prize, he would have refused to intervene in that case as well.

“It’s better for us, as judges, to refrain from sticking our noses into value-based public controversies like this,” he concluded. “That isn’t our job.”

Goldreich said he was pleased by the court’s ruling and hoped it “would fix at least a little of the enormous damage this affair has caused to freedom of expression and the Israel Prize’s prestige.”

Gilad Barnea, the lawyer representing the prize jury, also praised the ruling, saying that Shasha-Biton’s initial decision “didn’t contribute to respect for the prize. Let’s hope that from now on, the prize will be awarded to the winners without any irrelevant considerations.”

Following the initial petition against Gallant, the government promised that if Goldreich ultimately got the prize, the government would honor his decision on whether to receive it privately or at the official Independence Day ceremony where the prizes are usually awarded. Goldreich is expected to choose the former.

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