The Minister of Reeducation

The expansion of the 'boycott law' is an attempt to prevent any protest against government policy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) sits next to Education Minister Naftali Bennett during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, 30 August  2016.
Abir Sultan (Pool)

As part of various efforts to limit the freedom of expression, freedom to protest and academic freedom, a new bill will be presented to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, which expands on the problematic law that seeks to prevent harm to the state through boycotts. The proposed amendment would grant the chairman of the Council for Higher Education – the education minister – the authority to reduce the budget for institutions of higher education whose academic faculty members “call for a boycott of the State of Israel.” (The minister could make this move after first consulting with a committee appointed by the Council.)

According to the bill’s explanatory notes, the goal is to prevent harm to the state as a result of academic and other boycotts. But as sometimes happens with laws, this one, too, could extend far beyond its original intentions.

Thus, the definition of “boycott of the State of Israel” also include actions that don’t represent a call for a boycott. The original “boycott law” defines a wide range of acts, whereby carrying them out is considered a call to implement a boycott on Israel. For example, according to the law, “deliberate avoidance of economic, cultural or academic ties with a person just because of his connection to an area under the control of the State of Israel is considered a boycott of Israel.”

This means that if a faculty member calls to boycott a certain product because it is made in the occupied territories (beyond the Green Line) – and if there’s a reasonable chance that this will influence other people – then, according to the amendment, it’s as if he/she has called for a boycott of Israel. According to the proposed law, the education minister can then reduce the budget received by the institution where he/she teaches by the amount of their annual salary.

It’s quite clear that this is an attempt to silence people – not just those calling for a boycott of Israel or to undermine it, but also anyone who protests against government policy. The present government is trying to prevent any form of criticism, from human rights organizations and the media, and now from academia.

The denunciation of academics and accusing them of treason and harming the state because of their criticism of the government is a clear characteristic of undemocratic regimes. Israel is still not in that category, but the new proposal pushes it in that direction.

Furthermore, the imposition of liability upon an institution because of the “sins” of its employee is problematic: Is the institution also responsible for the things a faculty member does in their own free time as a civilian, and in matters unrelated to their work?

Finally, granting the authority to the education minister (who is beginning to look more like the “minister of reeducation”), which is a political appointment, points to the purpose of the law. Or, to paraphrase the well-known statement by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, why should the government fund academia if it cannot control it?

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