Israeli University Heads Blast New Ethical Code as Undermining Academic Freedom

The code of ethics is expected to ban professors from voicing political opinions in classrooms or supporting BDS

 Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Olivier Fitoussi

The umbrella organization of the heads of Israel's universities has blasted a new ethical code formulated at the behest of the Education Ministry that is expected to bar professors from voicing their political opinions in classrooms.  

The code, put together at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett by Prof. Asa Kasher, an ethics and philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University, would also forbid staff from calling for an academic boycott of Israel, it was revealed Friday.

"The heads of the universities vehemently object to the 'ethical code' outlining 'proper behavior' for academic facility in Israel.

"The ethical code, proposed by Prof. Asa Kasher, undermines institutes of higher education's freedom to decide their own codes of conduct for their academic staffs, and thus infringes on academic freedom in the most serious and fundamental way," it said, saying the right was enshrined as part of Israeli law.

"A closer examination of the code shows that thought it is titled 'Ethical code for the overlap between academic and political activity,' many of its clauses deal with academic matters like research and teaching in a general way. Thus, the code turns into a list of rules dictated by the authorities regarding the overall practices of academic faculty in Israel.

"The code's content only reinforces the opposition, on principle, to creating a unified code of conduct for all of Israel's academic institutes," they said in a statement.

Bennett had asked Kasher a few months ago to write a set of rules for appropriate political conduct at academic institutions. Kasher had written the Israel Defense Forces' ethics code.

The contents of the document, which were first reported by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Friday, will soon be submitted for the approval of the Council for Higher Education. 

The code would require each institution "to establish a unit that would monitor political activity" on campus, the document says. The unit could be an existing system, like an ethics committee, or a new department managed by the institution's academic staff.  So far institutions have not been required to reply to students' complaints or inquiries on political activity, according to Kasher. The new units would remedy that.

In a statement, Bennett's office said the code would bar lecturers from "promoting their political worldview in class."  

"If a lecturer does talk [about politics], and one of the students complains about it, that lecturer could receive a disciplinary citation from the institution," the statement said. Should the lecturer ignore the warning, he may face harsher disciplinary action. 

The code also bars academic staff from taking part in or calling for an academic boycott of Israel, and forbids collaboration with organizations that are considered political.  
  
The education minister's office said that while it supports absolute academic freedom, it opposes "the promotion of lecturers' political agendas in the academe."

"It's unacceptable that students are afraid to express their opinions in class for fear for their grades, or that lecturers call for a boycott of the institution where they teach," the statement said. "This isn't against any political side and anyway there is no reason for any side to object."

In December, the Committee of University Heads urged Bennett to scrap a plan to draft an ethics code after Haaretz first reported on it. Universities need to continue maintaining independent disciplinary systems, the committee said at the time, warning that a code dictated by an outside authority would violate the freedom of expression.