Academia in the Government's Service Has No Place in a Democracy

Education Minister Bennett's effort to regiment Israel’s higher education system through disciplinary rules against voicing anti-government views is fundamentally unacceptable

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at TheMarker's Economic Opportunities conference, February 26, 2018.
\ Moti Milrod

It’s not a code of ethics or any other euphemism; the effort by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who chairs the Council for Higher Education, to regiment Israel’s higher education system through disciplinary rules against voicing anti-government views is fundamentally unacceptable. Academia can’t exist without freedom, and it can’t tolerate commands from on high by the government.

There’s no need for actual censorship. To achieve the desired chilling effect, it’s enough to mark the boundaries of the conversation, which will narrow gradually but steadily. “Academia in the government’s service” has no place in a democratic country.

Compared to the original document which Bennett’s court philosopher, Prof. Asa Kasher, drafted last year at the minister’s request, the decision approved last week by a subcommittee of the Council for Higher Education appears less sweeping. Nevertheless, this doesn’t sweeten the pill. Both versions stem from Bennett’s desire to determine what’s permitted and what isn’t, in accordance with his own political worldview.

Four of the decision’s five paragraphs are self-evident and require no new rules. They ban discrimination against students or faculty because of their political views and forbid party propaganda in the classroom. Israeli law and existing regulations at the colleges and universities already address these issues.

To claim that now, special provisions are needed to prevent people from being harmed on account of their political views creates the false impression that this is a widespread problem. A problem that is marginal to nonexistent has thereby been inflated to the dimensions of a substantive threat to the existing order by academia. The code of ethics thus promotes Bennett’s narrative and that of the right-wing organizations that work alongside him. They are incessantly on the search for enemies, preferably domestic ones, so constant oversight is essential.

The first and perhaps most important paragraph of the decision forbids faculty members to call for academic boycotts of Israel or work to promote such boycotts. Yet universities and colleges have faculty members who believe that it’s not just their right, but their duty to support academic boycotts (or other kinds of boycotts) against Israel because of the occupation.

Forbidding people to voice opinions on this matter is a grave violation of freedom of speech. Under these circumstances, recognizing “the supreme importance of academic freedom,” as the preamble to the decision puts it, is a fig leaf that should deceive no one.

The Council for Higher Education was founded to create a separation between the political system and the higher education system and thereby ensure that there would be no infringement on academic freedom. Sixty years later, this gatekeeper, too, has been trampled into the dust.

But the statement put out by the council of university heads, saying they would not consent “to serve as political thought police for the government,” shows the right way to respond. There must be no cooperation with efforts from the education minister’s school to shut people’s mouths.

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