Opinion

How an Israeli Minister Endangered Scientific Cooperation With Germany

By removing me from a scientific panel, Ofir Akunis hoped to bolster his own standing but risked much more

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis
Marc Israel Sellem

A few days ago I turned into a media star; it wasn’t my choice, but it’s been fascinating. In an effort to explain to the public what happened, I gave thought to what to stress and how to distance the events from questions of left and right, which is how Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis tried to play the story.

I never claimed I was the most worthy person for the post – an appointment to an Israeli-German scientific committee – and I was not personally offended by the fact that Akunis had blocked my appointment. I was actually relieved that I would not have to review dozens of research proposals a week. But what did suffer was the professional activity of the German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (GIF).

The minister had a year to find a member for the council, but he let things drag on until the last minute. If he had appointed a declared right-winger who did the scientific work properly we wouldn’t have ever known about it and the foundation’s work would have continued as usual. In fact, Akunis indeed appointed another person, an avowed right-winger, and I hope he will do the professional work suitably. Yet no one is talking about that.

But not only did the minister leave the appointment until the last minute, he used a petition that I signed, along with 360 other academic faculty members, that calls for accommodating those who for reasons of conscience do not want to serve in the territories, to create political capital for himself. Akunis chose to come to the summary meeting of the foundation without an expert in life sciences, although the meeting dealt primarily with life sciences. The minister chose to put the foundation at risk, as well as the scientific cooperation with Germany that the foundation facilitates. It’s still not known how Germany will respond. The minister was also the one who gave the story to the media. We tried to get an appointment to the committee made quietly.

The petition I signed 13 years ago had little, if any, effect on the State of Israel. But the minister has risked clear state interests and is disrupting the work of the foundation, all to get some media exposure and to emphasize his remarkable patriotism to the Likud Central Committee. This isn’t an issue of left or right here; just a story about the cynical political use of a scientific foundation for personal advancement.

The struggle continues because it has significance far beyond what the minister expected or understood.

Prof. Amitai is a brain researcher at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Medical Faculty and heads the Interfaculty Brain Sciences School at the university.