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Israel's Education Ministry Learns a Valuable Lesson in the Freedom of Speech

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

A year after the first petition, the High Court of Justice has ordered Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton to award the Israel Prize in math and computer science to Prof. Oded Goldreich. The ruling puts an end, albeit belatedly, to a blatant attempt to harm freedom of expression and to limit the state’s most prestigious awards for scientific achievement to those who support the government. Cabinet members past and present, as well as self-serving persecution organization, were partners to the desire to stifle criticism. We can only hope the ruling marks the renunciation of the McCarthyist atmosphere and the persecution by Benjamin Netanyahu’s followers of opponents to the occupation.

In April 2021, Justices Isaac Amit, Noam Sohlberg and Yael Willner let then-Education Minister Yoav Gallant examine if he was authorized to ignore, in light of the professor’s having signed a petition calling on the European Union not to cooperate with Ariel University in the West Bank, the Israel Prize jury’s repeated decision to give Goldstein the award. The decision launched a campaign of political persecution over letters and petitions signed by the Weizmann Institute of Science researcher. In the end, predictably, Gallant declared that Goldreich “doesn’t meet the criteria of contributing to the State of Israel.” The court voided Gallant’s decision, but in a majority opinion (Sohlberg and Willner versus Amit) returned the matter to his successor, Shasha-Biton, while stressing that there are limits to how much a politician can interfere with the professional panel’s recommendations of laureates. But instead of leading a healthy change and reversing Gallant’s decision, Shasha-Biton joined the campaign of persecution. Now, Justices Willner and Amit have made it clear she exceeded her authority.

Goldreich’s urging the EU to refrain from cooperation with academic institutions in the West Bank is anchored in a scientific accord backed by three Israeli governments since 2014. “Given that the government – including the education minister – signed the agreement,” Willner wrote, the court cannot accept the claim that the petition Goldreich signed “constitutes such an unusual and extreme call that it justifies for the first time in the history of the state denying the Israel Prize on the basis of an external consideration.” A more principled stand was expressed by Amit. Denying Goldrech the prize, he wrote, would constitute “severe harm to academic freedom of expression” and would lead to “the monitoring, tracking and persecution of academics in Israel.”

In response to the justices’ criticism, Shasha-Biton said: “A person who calls for boycotting an Israeli academic institution doesn’t deserve an award from the state.” To that it must be said that it’s very doubtful that a person who fails to comprehend her official role deserves to be education minister.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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