In the coming weeks, Israel’s Council of Higher Education is due to discuss adopting an ethical code on political activity in universities and colleges drawn up by Prof. (Emeritus) Asa Kasher at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
The proposals, which include strict limits on lecturers voicing political opinions and a ban on support for academic boycotts, were widely condemned by many professors, who vowed to ignore the regulations, and by students, who threatened to strike.
In common with most Western countries, institutions of higher education in Israel tend to have a disproportionate representation of liberal teaching staff and have long been viewed by the Right as bastions of the left-wing elite, along with the media, judiciary, cultural and other civil society organizations.
Bennett has responded to the wave of criticism from academia by stressing that the Code of Ethics will apply equally to both the left- and right-wings.
“We are acting today to stop the silencing of voices in academia; to prevent a situation in which a student is liable to be hurt because of his political opinions; to avoid a situation in which a lecturer who receives a salary from the Israeli taxpayer comes out with a call for a boycott of Israeli academia, which pays his salary.”
Bennett stressed that the proposed Code of Ethics was not the Ten Commandments, but rather the opening point for a dialogue.
“The culture of debate and discussion is deeply rooted in Judaism and is the basis of the Talmud, and anyone who went to the trouble of reading the proposed Code of Ethics could see that. This is the start of the road at the end of which we will reach agreement on what will be applied,” he said.
Kasher, who drew up the controversial proposals, is an Israel Prize winner and philosophy and ethics professor at Tel Aviv University, who also co-wrote the Israel Defense Forces’ widely respected Code of Ethics.
He hit back against the criticism from professors.
“The problem these people have with the Code of Ethics is called Bennett. The moment his signature appears on it, the Left will be against it,” Kasher said.
He was particularly critical of the Association of University Heads, which spearheaded the campaign against the code. “The Association operates like the Haredi rabbis.
This is a conservative instinct of a group that wants to protect its own interests.”
Kasher claimed that should the academic boycott of Israel succeed, thousands of lecturers would be fired.
The Association of University Heads described the proposed code as an “aggregate of regime-dictated rules” and decried it as “wresting from the institutions of higher education the freedom to set rules of conduct and behavior for academic faculty members and, by so doing, egregiously and fundamentally violates the notion of academic freedom.”
Prof. Niv Gordon of Beersheba’s Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, said, “You won’t silence us. We will continue to discuss politics in class.”
Prominent historian Yuval Noah Harari from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose books have become international best sellers, likened the situation in Israel today with McCarthyism in the United States in the 1950s.
He told his students in a lecture: “If and when the Code of Ethics is passed, I intend to make certain to violate it in every lecture.”
He warned of “an atmosphere of censorship, thought police and fear,” and claimed that “an authoritarian regime does not come into being out of thin air one day; the solution is not to obey it from the outset.”
But not all professors were against the proposals. Nobel Prize Laureate for Economics, Prof. Yisrael Aumann, said the world of higher education is primarily composed of leftists who act as a closed clique.
“There is a systematic problem with the system of higher education in Israel. It is very, very one-sided. Only leftists. They appoint themselves and appoint those who think like them.”
Political Science Prof. Avraham Diskin of the Academic Center of Law and Science also welcomed the proposals.
“This is a carefully considered series of reasonable and moderate behavioral guidelines that are not complemented by punitive measures. Academics, who frequently spread fabrications about Israel’s ‘apartheid regime,’ about the ‘Judeo-Nazi IDF’ and who often support boycotts of the state, have spoken out fiercely against the code because they believe that academic freedom applies to maligning Israel inside and outside the classroom but that it does not apply to a code of ethics, which couldn’t be more tolerant.”
Pushing for a shake-up in Israeli academia for years has been the right-wing NGO Im Tirzu, which claims that students are afraid to voice their opinions. Eitan Meir, Im Tirzu’s director of external relations, welcomed the Code of Ethics as long overdue.
“This is really a breath of fresh air. We’ve received hundreds of complaints over the last few years from students telling us their professors are injecting radical anti-Zionist content into their courses and the students are afraid to express their opinions because they know they will get bad grades.”
Meir also criticized the cooperation between universities and left-wing NGOs.
“Students could get scholarships and academic credits by volunteering for organizations such as B’Tselem and Hamoked, which actually defend terrorists in court. The Middle East Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University voted to award a 20,000 shekel prize to Breaking the Silence, the most controversial organization in Israel. It’s absurd.”
He rejected criticism that the Code of Ethics would effectively turn students into spies against their professors.
“I think it’s a great thing that students will no longer be afraid to speak out in class. Students have a right to complain because academia is a place to express your opinions, not to be silenced by professors.”
The Israel Democracy Institute argues that the code invalidates the autonomy of institutions of higher education, which in turn is a violation of the Higher Education Law. IDI President Yohanan Plesner, a former Kadima Knesset member, said the Code of Ethics unreasonably expands the definition of what is political and harms the soul of academia.
“The Israeli academic system is one of the wonders of Zionism and one of our major national assets. The draft proposals endanger that. They go against the basic ethos of academia. The key question is the definition of what is political activity and the Code of Ethics defines it in such a broad manner that you can basically cancel the disciplines of economics and sociology.”
According to Plesner, the code was drawn up in response to a few marginal, radical voices. “But it puts in jeopardy the fundamentals of the entire Israeli academia.
A code of ethics should be presented by the institutions themselves following a broad dialogue, not by the government imposing a top-down unethical code that instills fear and a legal-type relationship whereby lecturers will constantly have to record themselves and defend themselves. This would be dangerous and counterproductive.”
The National Union of Israeli Students has threatened to strike if the code is implemented, arguing that the belief that restrictions could be placed on statements and thinking in academia was fundamentally misguided.
“The discourse today allows for open discussion and we want to continue that. We want a code that ensures that students can discuss whatever they want and not to impose a code that says politics cannot be discussed at all,” said Nava Edelstein, International Relations director of the National Union of Israeli Students.
The Code of Ethics has also come in for criticism from abroad. The American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers described the proposals as a threat not only to academic freedom in Israel, but to Israel’s standing as a democracy.
“No educator ‒ at any academic level, anywhere in the world ‒ should be told by outside forces what to say or how to think. Such a proposal is the antithesis of critical thinking and democratic principles,” the organizations said in a joint statement.
“We call on Israel’s government to reject this proposal by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett in no uncertain terms. Israel’s universities must remain havens of intellectual curiosity and serious study, with no attempt by the state to monitor or restrict faculty political positions or their ability to freely instruct students in their respective areas of expertise.”
The organizations stressed that while they oppose efforts to boycott Israeli universities, they also oppose stifling discussion of boycott proposals.
“Either you believe in democracy and the freedom to speak, or you don’t. That’s why this proposed code would, in the end, greatly harm Israel on the international stage.”
President Reuven Rivlin spoke up in defense of Israeli academia.
“The freedom of thought, opinion and creativity is the lifeblood of Israeli arts, sciences and democracy. Arts, culture and sciences are not anyone’s personal property,” Rivlin said. “We cannot build flourishing and vital systems of scientific research and development or inspiring artistic creations if we do not cultivate systems that encourage ideas that are different, controversial, entrepreneurial, and unexpected.”
There was also criticism from politicians.
Knesset Member Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union said the code was “an unethical and non-kosher document [an allusion to its author’s name] that is suited to benighted regimes.”
MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) described the proposal as yet another step in the competition among right-wing politicians for who can silence the most people.
“He must show his [Bayit Yehudi] constituency that [Likud Culture and Sport Minister] Miri Regev is not the only one,” Margalit said. “Bennett is a part of the rightwing mindset that sees silencing voices and the absence of free discourse as a goal.”
MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid said the Code of Ethics was proof that “sometimes professors, not to mention ministers, simply don’t understand what academia is. This strange thought-police simply won’t work.”
Right-wing politicians welcomed the new Code of Ethics, however.
MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli of Bayit Yehudi said, “Every average student can attest to the fact that Israeli academia is biased to the left. We’re not only talking about high-ranking [academics] who take part in activity against Israel, but mainly about preaching an agenda that manifests itself in lectures and research. If academia in Israel at least tried to conduct itself in an egalitarian manner, there would be no need to intervene.”
It remains to be seen if indeed the Code of Ethics will be endorsed by the Council of Higher Education in its original form or, maybe, in a watered-down version. But for some critics the damage has already been done and the mere possibility of sanctions will stifle a free exchange of ideas on Israeli campuses.
THE MAIN POINTS:
• Faculty members are not to comment in class on political issues unless they are directly related to the syllabus.
• Faculty members are not to take part in boycotts of institutions of higher education.
• Faculty members are not to call on others to support an academic boycott.
• Academic clinics will not cooperate with political NGOs.
• Each institution will establish a unit to monitor political activity on campus.
• Lecturers who discuss politics will face possible disciplinary action.