Sa'ar and the Monkey Trial

The education minister promised better math and science results in schools - but has he picked the right man to deliver them?

Education Minister Gideon Saar says that fostering scientific excellence among Israeli students is at the top of his priorities. When he took office, he undertook to improve the performance of Israeli schools in international comparative examinations in math and science, after years of declining achievements. He appointed professionals to key posts in his ministry, for which he won high praise.

But despite his solemn commitment to excellence and professionalism, Sa'ar made the mistake of naming Dr. Gavriel Avital the ministry's chief scientist. Instead of appointing, as his predecessor did, a prominent scholar in the field of education, he chose a Likud activist who ran on the party's slate in the last Knesset election. Avital is not an expert in education or in teaching the main subjects in the school curriculum, but an engineer who taught aeronautics at the Technion. But the main reason he is unsuitable for the post is not his lack of experience, but his opinions.

In a series of utterances disclosed by Or Kashti and Zafrir Rinat in Haaretz, Avital was exposed as an obscurantist Orthodox zealot who casts doubt on the validity of scientific research and rejects both evolution and global warming. He dismisses Darwin's theory because it leaves God out, and he has called environmental organizations "a fanatical religion with a great deal of evil." Avital promised to "scrutinize textbooks" to make sure that students are not exposed exclusively to "the opinion that man evolved from the ape."

Avital wants to push the education system hundreds of years into the past and undermine science's achievements in order to impart religious ideologies to Israeli students. His opinions flagrantly contradict the requirements of the chief scientist post and the state school system's striving for scientific excellence. His proposals that curricula undergo religious censorship to cast doubt on evolution are reminiscent of the notorious "monkey trial" that saw a teacher in Tennessee put on trial in the 1920s for teaching evolution.

The position of the Education Ministry's chief scientist should be filled by a top-notch scholar in the field, and not serve the minister as a way to pay off cronies and party hacks. Sa'ar should immediately get rid of Avital, whose appointment has made a mockery of the minister's lofty promises, and replace him with a true scientist.