Israeli university heads slam proposed muzzling of faculty's political comments

"Thinking that within the academy one can limit speech and thought is fundamentally wrong," said student union head.

June 11, 2017 14:58
3 minute read.
Students sit in a library at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel

Students sit in a library at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)


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Members of the academic community on Sunday widely condemned a proposal of the education minister to bar university lecturers from expressing political views in the classroom.

The Committee of University Heads in Israel, representing the nation’s seven universities, said in a statement that such a code “would deny institutions of higher education the freedom to set norms of behavior for academic staff members and by doing violate their academic freedom.

“A careful study of the code shows that although it is defined as an ‘ethical code for appropriate behavior in the areas of overlap between academic activity and political activity,’ many of its articles deal with general activities in academic research and lectures.

As such, this code is a collection of state rules [meant] to dictate our conduct as faculty members,” the committee said.

Ram Shefa, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, said that “although we support the struggle for each and every student to have the right to feel safe in expressing his or her political views without fear of the consequences, we do not support such silencing and harming of freedom of speech.”

“This code is very far from achieving its ethical goal,” Shefa continued. “The idea that one can restrict speech and thought within the academy is fundamentally flawed, because, yes, everything is political and it is impossible to separate politics from other fields of life, especially in the academy.”

According to the proposed code drafted by Prof. Asa Kasher (who also drafted the IDF Code of Conduct), units would be established on campuses to enforce the ban, and students could complain to them about violations.

It would also bar professors from calling for boycotts of Israeli academic institutions.

The code still requires the approval of the Council for Higher Education to be enacted.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett continued to campaign on behalf of the proposal with a post on his Twitter page on Sunday that read: “Example No. 1 why an ethics code is needed,” with a copy of a headline about a lecturer allegedly denouncing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as “neo-Nazi scum.”

Bennett also posted a copy of an article with the headline “Behind an academic boycott [of Israel] in the US: 20 Israeli [lecturers].”

The minister added his own commentary, writing with a cynical edge: “Seems rational.

Israeli lecturers are calling to boycott Israel, and we are paying their salaries.”

Politicians mainly from the Left condemned the proposed code.

Opposition chairman Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union said the initiative would “terminate the free spirit of academics.”

“I stand with the Committee of University Heads and the National Union of Israeli Students. The freedom to think and to express oneself is the source of Israel’s strength,” Herzog said.

Kasher rejected the critics, telling Channel 2: “Can you really imagine that I would pay attention to politicians’ nonsense? I couldn’t care less about them. I am willing to listen to constructive criticism, but read all the Facebook reactions and [you will see] it is all rubbish.”

The Israel Democracy Institute said Kasher’s work process furnished a “bad example” of how to write an ethics code.

The code was written by a single person rather than through dialogue with professors at the various institutions of higher learning, the IDI said. It added that it undermines the autonomy of these institutions, in violation of the Council for Higher Education Law.

“The ethics code that is being proposed unreasonably expands the definition of what is political,” the IDI said.

“The definition [used in the proposed code] does not differentiate between the political and the public, between political and ethical, or between systematic preaching and free discussion. Political activity, according to the proposed ethical code, includes all direct support of or opposition to ‘a particular point of view in a recognized public dispute.’”

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