Israeli Universities Urged to Bar Professors From Calling to Boycott Israel

We will not be used as a 'political thought police for the government,' heads of universities say in unusually harsh response

Archive - A protest against the academic 'ethic code,' at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, June 2017
Olivier Fitoussi

A panel for higher education headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett adopted a code of ethics Sunday that moves to bar academics from calling for a boycott of Israel. 

The subcommittee of the Council for Higher Education, in adopting this measure and a list of other principles prohibiting discrimination and advocacy based on political beliefs, rejected a controversial ethical code written by Prof. Asa Kasher at Bennett's request.

The heads of the universities in Israel harshly rejected the move, saying they would not agree to be "used as a political thought police for the government." The move "continues the unfortunate line by which the ethical code is political sensorship that crushes underfoot the most basic principles of academic freedom," it added. 

The principles do not mention a specific call to ban academic boycotts in the settlements, but calls for a “ban on discrimination, positive or negative, of students based on their political opinions,” and a “ban on discrimination, positive or negative, of a faculty member or candidate for such or for promotion, based on their political opinions.”

The measures would extend to both teaching faculty and administrators. The fourth principle bans “party propaganda in the framework of teaching,” and the fifth would prohibit “presenting or publishing materials “with political or personal opinions as if they are the opinions of the institution.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at a Knesset committee in February, 2018.
אילן אסייג

The committee also proposed that lecturers be prohibited from “wrongly taking advantage of the teaching platform to systematically and improperly exhort a political position that clearly exceeds what is required by the teaching of the course in its broader context within its field.”

The adopted principles were formulated last week and sent to the heads of Israel’s academic institutions for response. The issue will then be brought before the entire council.

The subcommittee recommends that these principles become part of institutions’ disciplinary codes by early 2019; however, there is some uncertainty among panel members as to whether this can be enforced by the council.

Adoption of the recommendations, a source told Haaretz, are ultimately up to the institutions themselves because the council is left with no avenue to enforce the measures. The only existing means against an institution that does not respond to the recommendations is to revoke its recognition as an institution of higher education, and that, of course, is unrealistic.

"A code of ethics," said the source, "is designed to define and spell out accepted norms of conduct in a specific community, and divergence from it can't be considered a disciplinary infraction."

The original, rejected ethical code formulated by Kasher included wide-ranging directives in almost all areas of academic life, including campus activity, the classroom, publications and promotions, and was met with wide protest in the academic world. 

Kasher’s ethical code treated the issue more stringently, stating that a lecturer “will not allow himself to deviate from the syllabus and the field of the academic unit, neither for political activity nor for similar exhortation, beyond a momentary and insignificant deviation. A significant deviation, for political purposes or similar exhortation, is improper and might also constitute wrongly taking advantage of authority.”

Earlier, the Committee of University Heads called the code “a collection of government-dictated rules over an ensemble of academic activities of the academic faculty in Israel."

The American Association of University Professors harshly criticized Kasher’s code, stating that it was damaging to Israeli democracy.